Authorities have blamed a slashing rampage that killed 29 people and wounded 143 at a train station in southern China on separatists from the country’s far west and vowed a harsh crackdown Sunday, while residents wondered why their laid-back city was targeted.
Police fatally shot four of the assailants — putting the overall death toll at 33 — and captured another after the attack late Saturday in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, the official Xinhua News Agency said. But authorities were searching for at least five more of the black-clad attackers.
State broadcaster CCTV said two of the assailants were women, including one of the slain and the one detained.
“All-out efforts should be made to treat the injured people, severely punish terrorists according to the law, and prevent the occurrence of similar cases,” said China’s top police official, Politburo member Meng Jianzhu, who arrived in Kunming early Sunday, an indication of how seriously authorities viewed the attack.
The attackers’ identities have not been confirmed, but evidence at the scene showed that it was “a terrorist attack carried out by Xinjiang separatist forces,” Xinhua said.
The far western region of Xinjiang is home to a simmering rebellion against Chinese rule by some members of the Muslim Uighur (pronounced WEE’-gur) population, and the government has responded there with heavy-handed security.
Police in Kunming on Sunday were rounding up members of the city’s small Uighur community, believed to number no more than several dozen, for questioning in the attack.
Most attacks blamed on Uighur separatists take place in Xinjiang, where clashes between Uighurs and members of China’s ethnic Han majority are frequent, but Saturday’s assault happened more than 1500km to the southeast in Yunnan, which has not had a history of such unrest.
Kunming residents expressed dismay at both the attack and the conditions within China that could have allowed it to happen.
Restaurant worker Xie Yulong said the attackers were “worse than animals.” But he also expressed sympathy toward ethnic Uighurs, saying their region has come under severe security crackdowns in recent months under the government of President Xi Jinping.
“It’s the pressure,” Xie said. “Beijing has put too much pressure on them since Xi Jinping. They are under so much pressure they do not want to live, and they did that.”
Witnesses described assailants dressed in black storming the train station late Saturday evening and slashing people indiscriminately with large knives and machetes.
Student Qiao Yunao, 16, was waiting to catch a train at the station when people started crying out and running, and then saw a man cut another man’s neck, drawing blood.
“I was freaking out, and ran to a fast food store, and many people were running in there to take refuge,” she said via Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblog. “I saw two attackers, both men, one with a watermelon knife and the other with a fruit knife. They were running and chopping whoever they could.”
The violence in Kunming came at a sensitive time, with political leaders in Beijing preparing for Wednesday’s opening of the annual legislature, where Xi’s government will deliver its first one-year work report.
Xi called for “all-out efforts” to bring the culprits to justice. The Security Management Bureau, which is under the Ministry of Public Security, said in a statement that police would “crack down on the crimes in accordance with the law without any tolerance.”
The attack was the deadliest violence attributed to Uighur-Han conflicts since riots in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi in 2009, in which Uighurs stormed the streets of the city, targeting Han people in seemingly random violence that included the killing of women and children. A few days later, Han vigilante mobs armed with sticks and bats attacked Uighurs in the same city. Nearly 200 people died.