Major Chinese cities are on high security alert ahead of the country's annual parliament session, following a weekend mass stabbing in the southwestern province of Yunnan that the authorities say was a "terror attack" by Uyghur separatists from the troubled Xinjiang region.
Chinese police have seized the remaining suspects sought for the Kunming railway station slashing rampage on Saturday, in which a group of black-clad assailants with knives and daggers killed at least 29 people and wounded 143—20 of whom are still in critical condition, state media announced on Monday.
"Of an eight-member group [six men, two women], four were shot dead by police at the scene, a wounded woman was arrested and the other three have been captured," the official Xinhua news agency reported.
It did not identify the ethnicity of the eight or say how the final three suspects were identified and captured.
Previous official media reports had said that around 10 people were involved in the attack, which they dubbed as "China's 9/11," in reference to the deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.
Xinhua named the leader of the assailants as Abdurehim Kurban, and an official was quoted saying on Monday that "flags of the East Turkestan terrorist forces were indeed found on the scene."
Beijing had said at the weekend that the attack was carried out by separatists from Xinjiang, home to the mostly Muslim ethnic Uyghur population.
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.
"The Chinese police are stepping up efforts to investigate and solve the serious incident of violent terrorism that occurred in Kunming, Yunnan, on the weekend," foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Monday.
But Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, said the government was making ethnic tensions worse with its response to the attacks.
"China's aim is to incite nationalism and to polarize the opposition between Han Chinese and Uyghurs," Raxit said. "It is very worrying."
"Beijing should immediately cease this kind of extreme political propaganda," he said.
Security has been tightened across China ahead of the opening of the annual rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), which will debate an anti-terror law at the forthcoming session.
"They are definitely being particularly careful in busy areas of dense population," said a source close to the government in the central city of Wuhan.
He said local residents had been warned to keep a close eye on their children and to stay away from crowded areas of the city.
"Places like railway stations are under very tight security now, because terrorists always strike where one is most vulnerable," he said.
The source said Uyghurs in particular were being targeted following the Kunming attack.
"Security measures are extremely strict now, and any Uyghur arriving in town will immediately have someone following them," he said.
Meanwhile, a Beijing resident said that police patrols were operating on a higher level of alert than before the attacks.
"There are jeeps full of police with guns and live ammunition," he said. "Some of my colleagues said there were a lot of armed police on the subway [on Sunday]."
In Chengdu, capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan, tight security was in force on Monday, according to rights activist Wang Jing.
"There are large numbers of police and armed police, and they're controlling the streets," Wang said. "There are a lot of vehicles, too, and they've closed off a lot of streets."
"There are yellow police lines surrounding the [provincial] parliament building, and squads of armed police patrolling the area," she said.
A second Beijing resident who gave only her surname Li said patrols had been stepped up around the main government buildings in the capital following the attacks.
"Because of the NPC and the terrorist incident in Kunming, there are even more police on patrol and billeted here than usual," Li said.
"Everywhere in Beijing is under very tight security now," she said.
The United Nations Security Council has condemned "in the strongest terms the terrorist attack" in Kunming, saying it "has caused numerous deaths and injuries of innocent civilians."
“The members of the Security Council extended their deepest sympathy and condolence to the victims and their families suffered from such most heinous terrorist attack, as well as to the people and the government of the People’s Republic of China.”
A statement from Washington condemned the attack but did not refer to it as a terrorist attack, sparking angry comments on the Chinese Internet on Monday.
Later Monday, the U.S. State Department went further and said the attack "appears to be an act of terrorism targeting random members of the public."
She said the U.S. deplores violence directed at innocent civilians, regardless of the cause.
China's parliamentary advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), ended its opening ceremony on Monday with a silence on behalf of the victims of Saturday's attack.
Backlash against policies
Writer Ye Du, who lives in the southwestern province of Guangxi, said he saw the Kunming attack as a backlash against the ruling Chinese Communist Party's policies towards Uyghurs.
"I guessed a long time ago that the attack would be against non-government targets, an attack on ordinary people," Ye said.
"The government ... didn't make any changes to its policies as the dead and injured toll mounted [within Xinjiang], so the situation was bound to deteriorate," he said.
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.
Zhu Xinxin, former editor for state-run Hebei provincial television, said President Xi Jinping would be looking to further consolidate the power of central government at the forthcoming parliament.
"But people should take care to prevent China from becoming more fascist," Zhu said. "I think we will see some action from this new national security agency set up by Xi Jinping."
"I think they will take [the Kunming attacks] as an excuse," he said.
Reported by Qiao Long and Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Fung Yat-yiu and Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.