Alleged “separatists” who orchestrated a knife attack which left 50 people dead and injured 50 others at a coal mine in northwestern China’s troubled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region had sought to steal the facility’s explosives, according to local security guards.
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 arrived at the mine in Terek township to control the situation, the attackers rammed their vehicles using trucks loaded down with coal, sources said, adding that at least five officers were killed in the incident, including a local police chief.
Twenty days after the attack, nine suspects remain on the run amid tight security in the region.
On Thursday, Tuniyaz Mollaniyaz, an explosives depot guard at a nearby mine in Terek, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the attackers had targeted Sogan’s dynamite cache, but came away empty-handed.
“According to my boss, the attackers planned to rob the Sogan explosives depot, but that day it was empty,” he said, adding that mines are often forced to wait for clearance from county authorities before they can stock dynamite.
“The attackers could not get what they wanted, so they stormed the dorm and residential units … My boss said that their initial plan was to attack the county police and military after they got the explosives.”
Mollaniyaz said that his guard unit and others overseeing explosives at the more than 20 coal mines in Terek township had been ordered to ramp up security, as local authorities have yet to apprehend the suspects.
“After the incident, the explosive materials from all of the mines were transferred to county control, but even though the depots are empty, we are still guarding them,” he said.
Units of six guards were monitoring the depot at his mine on 12-hour shifts, Mollaniyaz said, adding that they had been provided with spears while on duty, instead of the rubber batons they usually carry.
Operations at the township’s mines have yet to resume since being suspended in the wake of the incident, he said, while students remain exempt from classes at the local primary school, which has been serving as a base of operations for the ongoing manhunt.
Police and military security remains heavy on the streets of Terek, and helicopters used in the search operation have recently expanded their flight patterns to beyond the mountains where the suspects were believed to be in hiding, he added.
“It seems that the longer [the authorities] are unable to track down the suspects, the more anxious they become,” Mollaniyaz said.
“Yesterday, our boss warned us that the suspects had not been captured yet and that we should remain very vigilant.”
Kasim Akniyaz, a security guard at the Terek township office of revenue, confirmed to RFA that authorities had expanded their search for the suspects, who were previously believed to be located in an inaccessible ravine.
“Before, the soldiers were only searching the mountains, but now they have extended their operations to include the valleys and farming fields in neighboring areas,” he said.
“They are also making us join the search patrols, but they never provide us with updates on the situation.”
According to Akniyaz, authorities were also pressing experienced herders into the search to take advantage of their knowledge of the area’s intricate mountain passes.
He said 30 of the 50 who died from the attack are believed to have been killed on the scene, while the other 20 succumbed at a nearby hospital.
Around 10 of those killed were police, 10 were security guards at the mine, and seven or eight were managers, while the rest were workers, he added.
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 Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.