Chinese authorities have detained more than 100 relatives of a Uyghur accused of staging a deadly bomb and knife attack in the Xinjiang capital, most of them women and children, police from the man’s hometown said.
The relatives of Sedirdin Sawut, who authorities said was one of two Uyghur “religious extremists” behind a suicide attack at the Urumqi South railway station on April 30, were detained in Xinjiang’s Aksu prefecture.
State media reported Sawut, 39, from Aksu’s Shayar county, and another unidentified man went on a stabbing spree and set off bombs outside the train station, killing themselves and one bystander and injuring 79 in a major “terrorist” incident in the ethnic minority Uyghur region.
It was the latest in a string of train station attacks in China and violent incidents in Xinjiang about which state media have released few details.
Authorities in Sawut’s hometown of Gulbagh in Shayar have been rounding up his relatives to search for “like-minded” people who may be planning future terrorist strikes, local police said.
Dozens of children were among those who were detained in Gulbagh, where Sawut lived until two years ago and where former neighbors remember him as a pious farmer, police and residents said.
“We detained more than 100 of Sedirdin Sawut’s family members, including his relatives and his wife’s, and handed them over to the Shayar county police,” Gulbagh police chief Musa Emet told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“Most of them were women and children,” he said.
More relatives or people linked to Sawut could have been arrested in villages in other counties, where other police are carrying out the investigation, he said.
Gulbagh police were including children in the detentions because they were likely “to tell the truth” in questioning, he said.
The police had separated the men from the other detainees and were holding the women and children in the police offices, where they were “not being treated badly,” he said.
Gulbagh deputy police chief Yasin Ismail said the detentions were part of a “full-scale investigation” aimed at finding people linked through suspicious activities to Sawut.
“The main focus of the investigation is whether he had any helpers before, and if they are going to strike in the future—whether he had like-minded friends,” he said.
State media reported no details on Sawut other than his age and home county, and that he and the other unidentified assailant had received lengthy religious training.
Cities across China launched an “anti-terror” drive and stepped up security measures in the wake of the attack, which took place hours after China’s President Xi Jinping wrapped up a visit to the restive region.
In the days after the bombing, Xinjiang police conducted a search for several of Sawut’s close family members, who had gone missing and were suspected of helping him carry out the attack, the state-run Global Times reported, citing several police officers.
Xinjiang police issued notices seeking information about 10 of Sawut’s close family members and offering a 100,000 yuan (U.S. $16,000) reward for information about Sawut’s activities before the attack, according to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.
No criminal record
Gulbagh police told RFA that Sawut, whose relatives were mostly farmers, was a middle-school graduate with no criminal record.
Sawut had left Shayar county with his wife and children in April 2012, and had a grievance against police that might have been the reason for his departure, they said.
“We knew he was not happy with us, the police. But we did not know that he would do something this big,” deputy police chief Ismail said, referring to the bombing.
In 2012, police had detained Sawut to question him about a “suspicious” person renting his house, according to Ismail.
They held Sawut for less than 24 hours and visited his home a few times, prompting Sawut to complain that police had intimidated his family, he said.
“Some of his friends said he left [because] we would continue to bother him,” Ismail said, while other residents said Sawut had left in order to get his two children a better education.
Police and residents said they did not know where Sawut had gone after leaving the town, or whether he had ever received training from any extremist political or religious groups.
During the investigations Sawut’s former neighbors reported they had known him as a nice person and were surprised to hear that he was responsible for the bombing, police said.
“We talked to his neighbors, and even they were surprised when they heard this and said they never thought any of this could happen,” said one police officer, who gave only his first name Keremjan.
One resident who knew Sawut when he was younger and spoke on condition of anonymity said he had been “a very courteous and good kid.”
The attack outside the Urumqi train station followed a stabbing spree in March at a railway station in the southwestern city of Kunming that state media said was carried out by people from Xinjiang and left 29 people dead and 143 injured.
After the Urumqi blast, authorities in Xinjiang, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and other major cities began carrying out "discriminatory" detentions and searches of Uyghurs, particularly students, a spokesman for the exile World Uyghur Congress said last week.
A similar attack was reported at a rail station in the Guangzhou in south China on May 6, with six people wounded by knife-wielding assailants. Authorities did not immediately assign blame for that attack.
On Thursday, police in Aksu city shot dead one man after an attack on a police patrol left an officer seriously injured, according to official media.
Rights groups and exiles point to heavy-handed rule by authorities in Xinjiang, including curbs on Islamic practices and the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Official figures show that about 100 people were believed killed in attacks in Xinjiang over the last year.
Deadly 2009 ethnic riots in Urumqi left around 200 people dead and sparked a security crackdown targeting Ugyhurs.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.