Survivors tell of terror of market attack

Armed police patrol in Urumqi after attackers hurled bombs and plowed through shoppers in SUVs. Photo / AP
Armed police patrol in Urumqi after attackers hurled bombs and plowed through shoppers in SUVs. Photo / AP

Uighurs in XinjiangUighurs are ethnically Turkic Muslims.

They make up about 45 per cent of the region's population, while Han Chinese make up about 40 per cent.

There has been large-scale immigration of Han Chinese to the region since China re-established control in 1949 after crushing the short-lived state of East Turkestan.

Uighurs fear erosion of their traditional culture. Mrs Zhang had just bought her morning fruit and vegetables when an explosive tossed from one of two speeding SUVs slammed her to the ground.

Scrambling to her feet, and minus her shoes and hat, she fled while the two vehicles plowed through a crowd of shoppers before setting off more fiery blasts in the latest -- and bloodiest -- incident of violence in China's far northwestern Xinjiang region in recent months. The attack killed 31 mostly elderly people and wounded more than 90.

"The SUVs were mowing down people and goods alike," Zhang, 71, said yesterday at a hospital where she was being treated for crushed toes and other injuries.

"It is not safe here any more. We don't have a sense of security," she said.

A day after the attack in Xinjiang's capital of Urumqi, survivors told of their terror during the attack and said they no longer feel insulated from a long-simmering insurgency against Chinese rule, which has struck their city twice in recent weeks.

While the perpetrators haven't been named, Chinese authorities have blamed recent attacks on radical separatists from the country's Muslim Uighur minority.

Xinjiang is home to the native Turkic-speaking Uighurs but has seen large inflows from China's ethnic Han majority in recent decades. Uighur activists contend that restrictive and discriminatory policies favouring the Chinese migrants are fuelling the bloodshed. The knowledge that Muslims elsewhere are rising up against their governments also seems to be contributing to the increased militancy.

Zhang, who didn't want to give her full name out of fear for her safety, had four of her toes crushed but didn't know whether that was from a bomb or the ensuing stampede. She spoke to the Associated Press in a four-bed ward guarded by armed police at Urumqi's Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital. Soon after, doctors and nurses drove reporters out.

Another woman in the ward, Mrs Li, had been manning a public scale when she was knocked off her feet by one of the speeding SUVs and broke her hip. "It was so fast it was like a plane flying," said Li, 70.

Li spoke with defiance of the separatists seeking to overthrow Chinese rule in Xinjiang: "We are not going to give in. This is part of China."

Yet her daughter made clear that the danger of violence was now a much greater factor in the daily lives of Xinjiang's Chinese population.

"The violence used to be distant, but now I have my mother lying in the bed suffering. The danger is right here with us and we dare not go out," said the woman, who also declined to give her name.

Despite the previous day's mayhem, Urumqi was relatively calm yesterday, with only a heightened security presence around the scene of the attack. The market itself was closed and dozens of police armed with automatic rifles and wearing body armour guarded access points.

The death toll was the highest for violence in Xinjiang since days-long riots in Urumqi in 2009 between Uighurs and Hans left almost 200 people dead. Thursday's attack also was the bloodiest single act of violence in Xinjiang in recent history.

Recent attacks show an audaciousness and deliberateness that wasn't present before. They are also increasingly going after civilians rather than police and government targets.

Urumqi was the scene of a bomb attack at a train station late last month that killed three people, including two attackers, and injured 79. Security in the city has been significantly tightened since that attack, which took place as Chinese President Xi Jinping was visiting the region.

In response to Thursday's attack, Xi pledged to "severely punish terrorists and spare no efforts in maintaining stability", state news agency Xinhua reported.

Public Security Minister Guo Shengkun, China's top police official, was dispatched to Urumqi as the head of a team to investigate the incident.

At a briefing in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the incident "lays bare again the anti-human, anti-social and anti-civilisation nature of the violent terrorists and deserves the condemnation of the world community and the Chinese people".

In Washington, the White House also denounced this "despicable and outrageous act of violence against innocent civilians" and noted that "the United States resolutely opposes all forms of terrorism".

Before last month's train station attack, Urumqi had been relatively quiet since the 2009 ethnic riots amid a smothering police presence. The sprawling metropolis' population of more than 3 million people is about 75 per cent Han Chinese.

In March, 29 people were stabbed to death at a train station in Kunming, the capital of the southern province of Yunnan. The attack was also blamed on Uighur extremists.

The increasing frequency of attacks shows growing frustration among Uighurs over policies seen as discriminatory, said Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London.

"The issues are not getting resolved, and in some ways are getting worse," Pantucci said. "People are left feeling they have no hope."

- AP

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