A group of knife-wielding attackers has killed 29 people and wounded up to 143 others at a train station in China's southwestern province of Yunnan, according to authorities Sunday, blaming the slashing rampage on Uyghur "separatist forces" in the far western region of Xinjiang.
Police shot dead at least four of the estimated 10 black-clad attackers, detained one and were on the trail of the others, said the official Xinhua news agency, which described the incident late Saturday in Yunnan's Kunming as "China's 9/11," comparing it to the deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.
It is the first time groups in Xinjiang—home to ethnic minority Uyghurs who complain of oppressive Chinese policies and strict religious controls—have been blamed for a large-scale attack outside the region, more than 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) from Yunnan, which has no history of such violence.
President Xi Jinping called for "all-out efforts" in the investigation and for the attackers to be punished "in accordance with the law," Xinhua said, while U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned "in the strongest terms" the "terrible attack on civilians," his spokesman said in a statement.
Premier Li Keqiang called for an increase in security measures, especially in crowded areas.
“We were terrified," a young woman surnamed Xu living near the Kunming railway station told RFA's Mandarin Service. "I am now staying at home, [the incident] is making me panicky.”
Victims said the attackers, two of whom were identified as women by state broadcaster CCTV, slashed indiscriminately as passengers stood in line to purchase tickets at the station.
The attack, which lasted about half an hour, prompted a heavy police presence at the scene as locals left wreaths and held candlelit vigils for the victims.
Bodies covered in blood
Chinese mourners light candles at the scene of the attack at the main train station in Kunming, Yunnan Province, March 2, 2014.
Pictures on the Chinese Twitter-like microblogging service Sina Weibo showed bodies covered in blood lying on the ground at the station amid a heavy presence of security.
Shoes and luggage were left abandoned across the blood-spattered station and some images showed police standing over bodies of the alleged attackers, Agence France-Presse reported.
Many Weibo users expressed outrage. "Targeting ordinary people in a terrorist attack is disgraceful," said one. "They have nothing to do with this issue."
A Kunming railway worker told RFA that the station had been sealed off early Sunday before Xinhua reported that train services had resumed with security screening of passengers and luggage being carried out.
“Police blocked the areas around the railway station, to which we cannot deliver goods. There are a lot of police officers there,” he said.
When asked if his office is close to the scene of the tragedy, the man answered, “Very close."
"We were all shocked. Their [the attackers] action was inhumane and heinous.”
A driver by the surname Bai said Kunming city was in a state of shock amid the heightened security.
“Traffic [flow] has been heavily affected as police are checking vehicles. It shocked the ordinary citizens psychologically.”
A phone call to Kunming No. 1 Hospital, where most victims were being treated, was answered by a duty staffer who declined to provide any details.
“I cannot reveal the number of people we are treating. The government has a special team to deal with this incident,” he said.Tiananmen raid
The Kunming violence came five months after a car plowed into a crowded part of Tiananmen Square—the symbolic heart of the Chinese state—in Beijing in what the Chinese authorities called a terrorist attack, blaming three ethnic Uyghurs who were in the vehicle and died after it burst into flames.
The Uyghur driver implicated in the October attack may have been angered by a police raid on a mosque in Xinjiang, a former official from his home village had told RFA.
The Kunming attack on Saturday came as political leaders in Beijing were preparing for Wednesday's opening of the annual session of the rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), where officials will deliver the Xi government's first one-year work report.
Police in Kunming on Sunday were rounding up members of the city's small Uyghur community, believed to number no more than several dozen, for questioning in the attack and information about the assailants, the Associated Press reported.
"How do we know them?" a Uyghur man who gave only his first name, Akpar, told AP. "We could not tell if the assailants were Uyghurs as they were all dressed in black. We did not like the attack either."
World Uyghur Congress spokesman Dilxat Raxit said in an emailed statement that there was "no justification for attacks on civilians" but added that discriminatory and repressive policies provoked "extreme measures" in response.Xinjiang crackdown
China has intensified a sweeping security crackdown against the mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs in recent months in Xinjiang, where according to official figures about 100 people are believed to have been killed over the last year—many of them Uyghurs accused by the authorities of terrorism and separatism.
In January, the authorities detained outspoken Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti from his Beijing home and took him to Xinjiang, where officials say he has been held on separatism charges.
Tohti has been vocal on Uyghur rights and ran the moderate Uyghur Online website to discuss social issues involving Uyghur-Han Chinese relations, in articles published in both Chinese and Uyghur.
Uyghur human rights groups have said that Tohti’s detention was part of a broader strategy by Beijing to drown voices of minority Uyghurs and underscores China’s increasingly hard-line stance on dissent surrounding Xinjiang.
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said the Kunming attack reminded him of Ilham Tohti.
“Ilham doesn’t want Han Chinese to see all Uyghurs as terrorists and he tried all his efforts, including using his own language, to persuade Uyghurs to refrain from using any extreme method to harm innocent people," Hu told RFA.
"But he has been arrested for separatism charges. In this way, the Chinese government has dashed all hopes of the Uyghur people and destroyed the bridge of communication between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.” Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated by Ping Chen. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.