Two people have died and an unknown number are in hospital following a series of explosions in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang at the weekend, official media reported on Monday, although an exile group said the number of casualties may be much higher.
The blasts went off in Xinjiang's Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture at around 5:00 p.m. local time, according to the regional government website Tianshan.
One of the blasts went off outside a shop in Bayingolin's Bugur (in Chinese, Luntai) county, while others rocked the townships of Yengisar and Terekbazar, it said.
"Authorities are investigating the incident, and normal order has been restored in the affected areas," the government website reported.
Photos posted online by local residents showed the aftermath of an explosion outside the Luntai Mansions mall in the county town.
A business owner in the building told RFA she heard the blast and saw large numbers of people running away from it.
"I heard the noise and saw the smoke," she said. "I didn't know what was happening; I didn't move quickly enough [to see]."
"It wasn't far off; it was right there. There was a loud noise and then all hell broke loose out in the street," she added. "People were running around everywhere."
She said her business remained closed on Monday, along with many others.
"We are just waiting here at home and we have some batons to protect ourselves with," she said. "None of the shops are open for business today."
She said chat messages about the blast passed among her group of friends on the popular messaging app WeChat had been deleted.
"We saw some people were posting online about it, but later on all the posts were deleted," she said.
A second business owner surnamed Zhang said the blasts had shattered glass in shopfronts all along the street.
"It was a huge explosion ... I saw two children had fallen to the floor," he said. "There must have been dozens of people hurt, including from all the other explosions as well."
"There were explosions all over ... I never thought this would happen right next to me," Zhang said.
Meanwhile, a resident of Yengisar township said the blast there had rocked a local agricultural market.
"I heard a huge noise at around 5:00 p.m., as if someone had set off fireworks," the resident, who asked to remain anonymous, told RFA. "It was in the farmers' market."
"Later, a neighbor of mine who witnessed it called me up and said someone had thrown a bomb, that things were in turmoil, and that a large number of people had been hurt," he said.
"He wasn't [hurt], because he was upstairs at the time, but after he saw it, he started shaking like a leaf all over."
"I haven't been outside since the blast yesterday," he said.
He said rumors in Yengisar suggested as many as 20 or 30 people had been killed, compared with official media reports of just two.
He said reports of the blast in Terekbazar were also circulating on WeChat.
"This is very bad, because it is just coming up to the cotton harvest, and we need to take on workers. Once things get messed up like this, we won't be able to get any," he said.
"We are mostly farmers here ... and the cotton price is already so low. With explosions going off, no one will dare to come here."
Repeated calls to the Bugur county government offices, Yengisar township, and Terekbazar township government offices rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.
Calls to police stations in the three towns resulted in a repeated busy signal.
Number of casualties
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile World Uyghur Congress (WUC) group, said local sources had told the group that both ethnic minority Uyghurs and Han Chinese were among the dead and injured, and that official reports had likely played down the numbers.
"I have my doubts about the official accounts of just two dead," Raxit said. "There are armed security personnel stationed all over that area, and they are going around detaining people left and right."
He added: "We don't yet know exactly how many people have been detained."
He said the blasts had come amid generally tightened security ahead of China's Oct. 1 National Day holiday which coincides this year with the sacrificial festival of Eid al-Adha, one of the biggest holidays in the Islamic year.
He said the authorities had already begun stepping up raids and security checks targeting the mostly Muslim Uyghur population.
"If they don't change their approach, the concern is that disturbances of this kind will escalate even further," Raxit said.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.