BEIJING — A knife-wielding gang carried out an attack Saturday evening at a rail station in the south China city of Kunming, killing at least 29 and injuring more than 100, Chinese state media reported Sunday.
It was one of the deadliest attacks in China in years. Photos circulating on social media suggested that at least some of the victims were people lined up to purchase tickets. Other photos showed blood-stained bodies and people fleeing in terror.
Chinese state media, citing city officials, blamed the 9 p.m. attack on militants from Xinjiang, a region in West China that is thousands of miles from Kunming. “Evidence at the crime scene showed that the Kunming railway station terrorist attack was carried out by Xinjiang separatist forces,” Xinhua said, but it provided no details of the evidence.
Xinjiang is populated by Uighurs, Turkic Muslims who have long resented Beijing’s control of the area. In recent years, Uighur militants have carried out suicidal attacks on police stations in the region, often using knives and sometimes crude explosives. In October last year, a family of three Uighurs drove a sports utility vehicle onto a sidewalk in Tiananmen Square, killing two tourists and injuring 40, before setting the car on fire and killing themselves.
Saturday’s attack prompted an unusual statement by China’s leader, Xi Jinping, ordering a sweeping manhunt of those responsible for what he labeled a terrorist attack.
“Severely punish in accordance with the law the violent terrorists and resolutely crack down on those who have been swollen with arrogance,” he said, according to Xinhua. “Understand the serious and complex nation of combating terrorism. Go all out to maintain social stability.”
Kunming, in Yunnan Province, is 1,300 miles southwest of Beijing and about 2,333 driving miles southeast of Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi. Because of the distances involved, and sketchy details provided by authorities and state media, some analysts Sunday urged caution in immediately concluding that Uighur militants were responsible.
Nevertheless, Saturday’s attack was likely to trigger a heavy handed response by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang, a region already under tight police control and restricted media access. Just last week, Beijing authorities arrested a leading Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, charging him with promoting “separatism.” Tohti’s and his supporters dispute the charges, saying he is being silenced for his outspoken criticism of China’s human rights record in Xinjiang.
On Chinese social media on Sunday, most commentators expressed sympathy with the victims and urged government action against the terrorists.
“Some of these (victims) are poor people who do odd jobs and are possibly the breadwinners of their families,” wrote Anliuyi of Kunming. “They have children and parents, and just because they ran into this gang, they are dead and their families are broken.”
A man named Yang Haifei, who was wounded in the chest and back, told Xinhua he had been trying to buy a train ticket when the assailants carried out their attack. “I saw a person come straight at me with a long knife and I ran away with everyone,” he said. Others, he said, “simply fell on the ground.”
(McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.)