Friday, 23 May 2014 | MYT 10:00 AM
31 dead scores wounded in attack in China's Xinjiang
Chinese policemen near the street market where two off-road vehicles drove into a crowd, with one of them exploding, in Urumqi on May 23, 2014. - AFP
Urumqi (China) (AFP) - Attackers killed at least 31 people Thursday when they ploughed two vehicles into a market and threw explosives in the capital of China's Xinjiang region, in what authorities called the latest "severe terrorist incident" to hit the Muslim Uighur homeland.
More than 90 people were also wounded when two off-road vehicles drove into a crowd in Urumqi, with one of them exploding, the regional government's Tianshan web portal said, in an attack with echoes of a fiery car crash in Tiananmen Square last year.
China has seen a series of incidents in recent months targeting civilians, sometimes far from Xinjiang itself, that authorities have blamed on separatists from the vast and resource-rich region in the country's far west.
The United States and the United Nations condemned the violence in Urumqi, where residents were shocked by the carnage.
"I saw people lying all over the place, it was a very bad sight. There was blood everywhere," said a taxi driver surnamed Pan, who was one of the first to arrive at the scene.
"How can they do this at a market where elderly people shop?"
Many of the dead lay in the middle of the road and survivors sat on stools still in shock, their faces covered in blood, graphic images obtained by AFP showed.
Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to "severely punish violent terrorists", maintain a "strike first" policy and "crack down on them with a heavy fist", state broadcaster CCTV said.
A witness at the market told the official news agency Xinhua he heard a dozen "big bangs" during the attack at about 7:50 am (2350 GMT Wednesday), when morning markets are typically crowded.
- US, UN express horror -
The White House swiftly condemned the "horrific terrorist attack", after Chinese social media users had criticised the United States for not using the term "terrorism" to describe earlier attacks blamed by authorities on members of the Uighur minority.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences, Xinhua reported, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon issued a statement saying there was "no justification for the killing of civilians."
Many of the shops and restaurants at the scene of the attack, Gongyuan Bei Jie, or North Park Street, gradually opened during the course of the day as authorities cleared up much of the devastation.
The street where the explosions happened was heavily patrolled by armed police late Thursday, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.
- Increasing technical abilities -
China has repeatedly blamed violence in the region on separatist groups seeking independence for Xinjiang, but few analysts consider there have been any credible claims of responsibility for the attacks.
On April 30, the final day of a visit by Xi to the region, assailants armed with knives and explosives carried out an attack at a railway station in Urumqi, killing one person and wounding 79. Two attackers also died.
In March, knifemen went on a stabbing spree at a railway station in Kunming in southwestern China, around 2,500 kilometres (1,500 miles) away from Urumqi, killing 29 people and wounding 143 in an incident dubbed "China's 9/11" by state media.
Four flights were diverted over bomb scares later Thursday, airlines and reports said, illustrating the tensions over the violence.
Recent incidents have shown the attackers' "technical and organisational skills are increasing", Shan Wei, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute, told AFP.
"They can choose the site and timing of attacks, and the challenge to the Chinese government is increasing very fast," he added. "Every time its response is to crack down."
Thursday's blasts came a day after state media reported that courts in Xinjiang jailed 39 people for up to 15 year for offences including spreading "terrorist videos".
"Quite a number of these attacks have no relation to separatist movements, it's venting frustration at the Chinese government... including restrictions on religion," said Willy Lam, a China analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
In 2009, riots erupted in Urumqi between Uighurs and Han Chinese, the country's ethnic majority, leaving 200 people dead.
- Fears in Uighur community -
Critics say Beijing exaggerates the security threat in Xinjiang to justify hard-line measures, and that tensions are driven by cultural oppression, intrusive security measures and immigration by majority Han Chinese which have led to decades of discrimination and economic inequality.
Dilshat Rexit, a spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress, said in a statement emailed to AFP he could not confirm the ethnicity of Thursday's attackers.
But he said: "The worsening situation has a direct relationship with Beijing's repressive policies. Unbearable repression and despair lead people to fight."
He urged Beijing not to step up its crackdown, adding: "I am particularly worried that this event may lead to loss of freedom for more Uighurs."
Beijing says that its policies in the region have brought prosperity and higher living standards.
The attack sparked outrage on Sina Weibo, with many calling for action against the assailants.
"We should learn anti-terrorist methods from the US and Israel which is about talking less nonsense, showing less mercy and killing them all," said one poster.