The death toll in a knife attack orchestrated by alleged “separatists” at a coal mine in northwestern China’s troubled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has climbed to at least 50 people—including five police officers—with as many as 50 injured, according to local security officials who say nine suspects are on the run.
The attack occurred on Sept. 18, when a group of knife-wielding suspects set upon security guards at the gate of the Sogan Colliery in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture’s Bay (Baicheng) county, before targeting the mine owner’s residence and a dormitory for workers.
When police officers arrived at the mine in Terek township to control the situation, the attackers rammed their vehicles using trucks loaded down with coal, sources said.
Three sources, including a ruling Communist Party cadre from a local township government, told RFA’s Uyghur Service in recent days that at least 50 people were killed and as many as 50 injured in the attack—with most casualties suffered by the mine’s largely majority Han Chinese workers.
“The damage of the attack was very severe—that is why we are controlling [the flow of] information about the incident so strictly, lest we frighten Han migrants in Aksu,” said the cadre, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Last week, sources had estimated that at least 40 people were either killed or injured in the incident, including police officers, security guards, mine owners and managers, and attackers.
Other sources within the ethnic Uyghur exile communities in Sweden and Turkey have since put the number of dead as high as 110 and said the worker dormitory was the focus of the attack, although these accounts could not be independently verified by RFA.
Ekber Hashim, a police officer who inspected the mine’s dormitory following the incident, told RFA that “nearly all the workers who were not on shift at the time were killed or injured.”
“Some workers were sleeping while others were preparing to work when the attackers raided the building after killing the security guards,” he said.
The Sogan Colliery, consisting of three separate coal mine shafts, maintains a six-story dormitory to house its 300-400 workers—around 90 percent of whom are Han Chinese, according to official sources.
At least five policemen were also killed in the attack, including Terek township chief Wu Feng, 45, and officers Xiao Hu, 25; Zakirjan, 28; and Zayirjan Kurban, 27. The fifth officer has yet to be identified.
An auxiliary officer from the neighboring Bulung township police department told RFA that Terek township deputy police chief Kurbanjan and his assistant “survived the incident by throwing themselves into the river next to the colliery.”
“They went [to the mine] as part of a second team after five police officers, including police chief Wu Feng, were killed,” said the officer, who also declined to provide his name.
“The second team had no idea everyone in the first team had been killed when they left the station. They turned their motorcycles around and fled when they saw the dead and injured, but the attackers pursued them in trucks and they were forced to drive the bikes into the river to escape.”
Suspects on the run
According to sources, authorities in Aksu have issued a warrant list for nine suspects who are believed to be hiding in a nearby mountain ravine, amid a widespread police operation to locate them.
The auxiliary officer from Bulung township said he believed the search had remained unsuccessful after 12 days because the suspects had taken guns from the policemen killed in the attack and authorities were reluctant to attempt to flush them out.
He added that the ravine is “complicated and dangerous,” while the suspects are from nearby villages and are “familiar with every inch of the area.”
Another officer from Bulung named Tursun Hezim said police had received a notice from higher level authorities warning them to keep a lookout for a group of people wearing “camouflage”—a tactic allegedly employed by suspects in other recent attacks in the Uyghur region.
“Based on this guidance, I assume the suspects attacked while wearing uniforms, which allowed them to catch the guards at the colliery and police on the road when they were unaware and successfully make their escape,” he said.
“We also have been warned not to walk alone while patrolling in the villages or mountains, and to protect the residences of Han workers and coalmine owners, as well as to closely monitor the dynamite storerooms at collieries.”
Last week, sources told RFA that the suspects had “taken control of the dynamite” at Sogan and were believed to have used explosives in the attack, although this could not be verified.
Since the incident, security personnel have been deployed in force in Terek township and are pressing local residents into assisting them in the search for the suspects, sources said.
Yasin Sidiq, a technician with a telecommunications company in Terek, said that while scouting locations for new signal towers near the mountains with coworkers on Tuesday he witnessed “armed police everywhere and many checkpoints, with police and army trucks passing us every five to 10 minutes.”
“All the herdsmen in the area were holding sticks which are usually used by farmers while assisting in a police operation,” he said.
A Terek township middle school teacher told RFA that authorities had established a “command center” at his school, while students and staff members had been on vacation for the past week.
“Our schoolyard is completely filled with police cars and ambulances, while helicopters fly from our soccer field to the mountains and back,” he said.
An attendant at a gas station in Terek said authorities had been gathering horses from local villagers to transport goods for the mountain search operation, while store owner Ablet Mehmut said the township administrative office had been set up as a mess hall with “20-30 women cooking food for the authorities and the farmers assisting them.”
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.