Updated at 12:15 a.m. ET on 2014-3-4
A group of knife-wielding attackers who went on a weekend slashing spree at a train station in China's southern Yunnan province may have been disgruntled ethnic minority Uyghur asylum seekers who felt "trapped" between violence in their Xinjiang homeland and the inability to flee across the border into Laos, sources say.
Chinese authorities have labeled the eight assailants accused of killing 29 people and injuring 143 others in the "terror attack" at the railway station in Yunnan's capital Kunming as separatists from the troubled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region—more than 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) from the province.
But Uyghur sources in the Yunnan capital said the eight—four of whom were shot dead and the others captured by police—might have acted in desperation as they, according to Chinese state media, slashed indiscriminately at people queuing to buy tickets at the busy railway terminal on Saturday.
"I believe the attackers may have been a desperate group of Uyghurs who fled Xinjiang to Yunnan and were trapped there after the Chinese authorities discovered their plans to get across to Laos," a Uyghur in Kunming told RFA's Uyghur Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The source said he suspects the eight had fled to Yunnan following a police crackdown in Xinjiang's violence-hit Hanerik township in Hotan prefecture last year.
The crackdown came after police opened fire at a large crowd of unarmed Uyghurs protesting the arrest of a young religious leader and the closure of a mosque in June, leaving at least 15 killed and 50 others injured.
In October, sources had told RFA that Chinese authorities had rounded up some 100 Uyghurs in Yunnan amid a hunt for seven suspects fleeing to the Lao border following the Hanerik clashes.
At least 30 Uyghurs were apprehended at the town of Mohan on the border with Laos in Yunnan’s Mengla county in late September, and scores of others were detained around the province, a Uyghur merchant who witnessed the arrest had told RFA.
Some of them were held because they were trying to flee across the border into Laos without passports.
Laos is among countries bordering China which Uyghurs fleeing violence in their homeland hope to use as a launching pad for sanctuary in third countries.
The eight linked to the deadly Kunming attack—including two women—had likely been placed on the police wanted list after the 30 Uyghurs were apprehended in Mohan, sources in Kunming said.
“They may have tried to cross the border in their bid for political asylum, but they gave up after the 30 Uyghurs were captured on the Mohan border,” another Uyghur in Kunming said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They cannot go back to Hotan, but they cannot do any business in Kunming either because they don’t have any ID cards with them and have arrest warrants issued against them by the regional police department,” the source said.
With no immediate hope in sight, they may have decided to go on a killing spree to avenge the death of their compatriots back home in Xinjiang, according to the source.
“They were likely reacting to the extrajudicial killings that have occurred about a dozen times last year in Xinjiang," the Uyghur said. "Their message to the government was, ‘We can do something also.'"
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.
'East Turkestan flags'
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in Beijing Monday that "some East Turkestan flags were found on the scene" of the Kunming attack, led by one Abdurehim Kurban.
Hong Kong broadcaster Phoenix TV showed images of a blue flag embroidered with the Islamic declaration of faith, said to have been found by police.
Many Uyghurs refer to Xinjiang as East Turkestan, as the region had come under Chinese control following two short-lived East Turkestan republics in the 1930s and 1940s.
They say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination and oppressive religious controls under Beijing’s policies, blaming the problems partly on the influx of Han Chinese into the region.
Rights groups and experts say Beijing exaggerates the terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest or to justify the authorities' use of force against Uyghurs.
WUC condemns violence
The Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) said in a statement Monday that it "unequivocally condemns" the Kunming violence, expressing condolences to the victims and their families.
It noted that only one named person has been implicated in the attack and that the ethnicity and identities of the other assailants have not been disclosed, although Chinese state media has blamed “Xinjiang separatists” for the attack.
The WUC urged calm on all sides and called on the Chinese government to provide assurances that Uyghurs will not be subjected to "indiscriminate reprisals."
“At this time of heightened tensions, it is important the Chinese government deal with the incident rationally and not set about demonizing the Uyghur people as state enemies," WUC President Rebiya Kadeer said.
"The Chinese government and state media have a responsibility to not inflame the emotions of Chinese citizens making the Uyghurs in China vulnerable to reprisals,” she remarked.
“The fact remains that peaceful dissent against repressive government policies targeting Uyghurs is legitimate, so the Chinese government must not conflate this constructive criticism with the events of 1 March. It is absolutely vital the Chinese government deal with the longstanding and deteriorating human rights issues facing Uyghurs if tensions are to be reduced.”
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.