Authorities have blamed a slashing rampage that killed 29 people and wounded 143 at a train station in southern China on separatists from the country’s far west, while local residents said government crackdowns had taken their toll on the alleged culprits.
Police shot dead four of the attackers – putting the overall death toll at 33 – and captured another after the attack in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, the official Xinhua News Agency said. But authorities were searching for at least five more of the black-clad attackers.
State broadcaster CCTV said two of the assailants were women, including one of those killed and the one detained.
“All-out efforts should be made to treat the injured people, severely punish terrorists according to the law, and prevent the occurrence of similar cases,” said China’s top police official, Politburo member Meng Jianzhu, who arrived in Kunming yesterday, an indication of how seriously authorities viewed the attack.
The attackers’ identities have not been confirmed, but evidence at the scene showed that it was “a terrorist attack carried out by Xinjiang separatist forces,” Xinhua said.
The far western region of Xinjiang is home to a simmering rebellion against Chinese rule by some members of the Muslim Uighur population, and the government has responded there with heavy-handed security.
Police in Kunming were yesterday rounding up members of the city’s small Uighur community, believed to number no more than several dozen, for questioning about the attack and information about the assailants.
“How do we know them?” said a Uighur man who gave only his first name, Akpar. “We could not tell if the assailants were Uighurs as they were all dressed in black. We did not like the attack either.”
Most attacks blamed on Uighur separatists take place in Xinjiang, where clashes between Uighurs and police or members of China’s ethnic Han majority are frequent, but Saturday’s assault happened more than 900 miles to the south east in Yunnan, which has not had a history of such unrest.
Kunming residents expressed dismay at both the attack and the conditions within China that could have allowed it to happen.
Restaurant worker Xie Yulong said the attackers were “worse than animals”. But he also expressed sympathy toward ethnic Uighurs, saying their region has come under severe security crackdowns in recent months under the government of President Xi Jinping.
“It’s the pressure,” Mr Xie said. “Beijing has put too much pressure on them since Xi Jinping took over. They are under so much pressure they do not want to live, and they did that.”
Another Kunming resident, Jiang Hua, said the attack has made people scared to go out at night.
“I think we should chase off the Uighurs and let them be independent,” Mr Jiang said. “And local authorities should be held accountable for providing public safety.”
Witnesses described assailants dressed in black storming the train station and slashing people indiscriminately with large knives and machetes.
Student Qiao Yunao, 16, was waiting to catch a train at the station when people started crying out and running, and then saw a man cut another man’s neck, drawing blood.
“I was freaking out, and ran to a fast food store, and many people were running in there to take refuge,” she said. “I saw two attackers, both men, one with a watermelon knife and the other with a fruit knife. They were running and chopping whoever they could.”
A survivor named Yang Haifei, who was wounded in the back and chest, told Xinhua he had been buying a train ticket when the attackers rushed into the station.
“I saw a person come straight at me with a long knife and I ran away with everyone,” he said.
Alarms over a possible spread of militant attacks to soft targets beyond the borders of Xinjiang were first raised in October when a suicide car attack blamed on three ethnic Uighurs killed five people, including the attackers, at Beijing’s Tiananmen Gate.