A knife attack orchestrated by alleged “separatists” at a coal mine in northwestern China’s troubled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has resulted in at least 40 casualties, including the deaths of five police officers, and several suspects are believed to be on the run, according to local security officials.
The attack began at around 3:00 a.m. on Sept. 18 when a group of knife-wielding suspects set upon security guards at the Sogan Colliery in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture’s Bay (Baicheng) county, Jamal Eysa, the chief of state security police at a neighboring mine in the county seat told RFA’s Uyghur Service Monday.
“The attack started at security gate of the colliery, which was watched by some 20 security guards at the time,” he said.
“The residence of the colliery owner was the second target and, at the end, [the suspects] attacked police as they approached the area to control the situation.”
Eysa said he received a phone call from the mayor of Bay township later that day ordering him to patrol area streets and prepare for a potential attack against the Bay Colliery where he is stationed, around 20 kilometers (12 miles) away from the Sogan Colliery in Terek township.
An official notice he later received suggested the incident at Sogan was “a long-planned, well-prepared, large-scale attack by separatists against police officers and mine owners at a coal field in our county.”
Colleagues who took part in the operation against the attackers told Eysa the suspects were from “neighboring farms” and that they had “taken control of the dynamite at the colliery.”
“That is why they were able to do such severe damage to our police team and to the Han businessman and factory owners,” he said, without providing details about whether explosives were used by the suspects.
Eysa estimated that “at least 40 people were killed or injured, including police officers, security guards, mine owners and managers, and attackers.” Relatives informed him that his friend Zakirjan, who worked as a security guard at Sogan, was among those killed.
“That day, seven or eight ambulances were constantly driving between the Sogan Colliery and the Bay County Bazaar from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.,” he said.
“Even though four days have passed since the incident, raiding operations are ongoing, so I believe that at least some of the attackers are alive and on the run.”
Police officers targeted
Zhang Jianjie, a security guard employed by the Bay township government, told RFA authorities were now patrolling the area in force and strictly controlling information about the incident, but said he had received details about the incident from his superior.
“According to my boss, the attackers called the Terek police station to report the incident, and when police officers approached the mine area, the group used trucks filled with coal to ram the police van and then assaulted the injured officers with knives,” Zhang said.
“I know that five of 10 police officers were killed at the scene and the rest of them were transferred to the hospital in Bay county, but I don’t know how many of the attackers were killed or injured,” he said.
“The current situation in Bay county indicates that at least some of the attackers are alive and were able to escape.”
A policeman from the Terek township station, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, also confirmed the incident and said victims of the attack included high-ranking officers from his department.
“I know that our chief, Wu Feng, was killed in the incident and our deputy chief Kurbanjan was injured and taken to a hospital,” he said.
“I have not seen my other three colleagues since they left the station … to go to the coal mining field, and I’ve only been told to wait to hear in the next few days about their fate.”
The policeman said he “didn’t have much knowledge about the incident” and suggested speaking with area residents to get more information.
Li Ming, a resident of Bay township, told RFA that when he took his son to school on the day of the incident, he noticed that the campus security detail had moved from the gate onto the street and had increased to 10 guards from two or three normally.
He said that by Monday afternoon, security checkpoints had been established at all intersections throughout town, while armed police squads were patrolling the area in armored personnel carriers, leading him to believe that the “incident was much more severe than I had thought and the suspects have still not been killed or captured.”
Li’s son had been let out of school two hours early on Monday, but the only explanation his teacher gave was that the dismissal was linked to an “incident at the coal mining field.”
While Li could confirm the incident had taken place at “the coal mining field in Terek township,” he said he was unable to provide further details due to a clampdown on information by local authorities.
“I have no right to give you information and I have to record your contact information to give to the county police department,” he said.
“I can only answer your questions if the department notifies me that I may accept your interview.”
The ‘three evils’
China has vowed to crack down on the "three evils" of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism in Xinjiang, but experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from Uyghur "separatists" and that domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012.
Uyghur groups in exile say such attacks are likely expressions of resistance to Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs complain of pervasive ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression by China’s communist government.
Rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.