Dozens stabbed to death in China Muslim separatist attack

Jamil Anderlini and Tom Mitchell
AFP | Getty Images

A rampaging gang of knife-wielding ethnic separatists in a railway station in southwest China has left at least 33 people dead and prompted warnings of similar attacks due to the failure of China's policies towards minority groups.

At least 140 people were left with serious injuries after a gang of more than 10 people dressed in black and armed with long knives burst into the busy station at about 9.20pm on Saturday and began indiscriminately chopping ordinary travelers.

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Eyewitnesses who spoke to the FT said the authorities appeared unprepared and disorganized in their response to the slaughter and that the attacks continued throughout the station even after police had shot dead at least four of the assailants.

"I was caught among the crowds trying to escape but there wasn't really anywhere to hide because the attackers were spread out through the whole railway station in each level of the building," said one traumatized female witness who asked not to be identified. "They were butchering everyone they saw, including kids and the elderly."

By Sunday evening there was only a small police presence at the railway station as people gathered near an impromptu memorial of flowers and candles to mourn the dead and injured. "Kunming is relatively peaceful and they knew there would be lots of Chinese at the station," said Wang Dejun, a local resident.

"We have never experienced this kind of violence before," added Tian Qingyuan, a student whose school is close to the station.

China's authoritarian government quickly blamed the attack on "terrorist separatist forces" from the vast, resource-rich Xinjiang region, which is home to the predominantly Muslim Uighur ethnic group, many of whom are opposed to Chinese rule.

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On Sunday, President Xi Jinping and other senior leaders promised swift and "iron-fisted" retribution for "terrorist and separatist" groups across the country.

But experts on China's policies toward ethnic minorities said the attacks revealed the failure of those policies in addressing simmering resentment and rebellion in China's western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.

Since 2009, about 130 ethnic Tibetans have set fire to themselves in protest against Chinese rule and Beijing's repressive policies. Most of them have been current or former monks and nuns, and most have died from their injuries.

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"As the government cracks down within Xinjiang itself the trend will certainly be for more similar attacks in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou," said Wang Lixiong, a political writer and expert on China's policies in Xinjiang and Tibet. "This attack clearly illustrates the failure of the Communist Party's ethnic policies and especially its use of violence to maintain stability. Xinjiang is steadily becoming another Palestine and it seems no one is able to stop it."

Following Saturday's attack in Kunming, Chinese state media provided factual accounts of the carnage but government censors also moved quickly to purge photos and unapproved reports on the incident from media and the internet.

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While issuing stern condemnations of the bloody attack the government appeared worried about the possibility of a backlash against ethnic Uighurs living throughout the country.

Following huge race riots in 2009 in the Xinjiang provincial capital Urumqi that left about 200 people dead, ethnic Uighurs living in the region were attacked by large mobs of Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in the country.

Uighurs often complain about the flood of Han migrants encouraged to move to Xinjiang in the past few decades as part of an apparent attempt to dilute the Uighur population and solidify Beijing's rule in the region.

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A lack of jobs for young Uighurs and an increasingly harsh and repressive Chinese security presence in Xinjiang have also helped radicalise disaffected groups.

In late October three Uighur activists crashed and blew up a jeep in Tiananmen Square in the centre of the Chinese capital Beijing, killing themselves and two bystanders and injuring another 40 people. But Saturday's knife attack is the largest ever blamed on Uighur separatists to occur outside of Xinjiang.

Some analysts said the brazen nature of Saturday's attack and the fact the attackers were dressed all in black suggested they intended to die during their assault in a worrying sign of radicalisation and desperation.

Eyewitnesses at the scene who spoke to the FT said the assailants seemed to run towards police bullets.

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"I was there as the police started shooting and when it stopped I walked up and saw five dead bodies lying in the street," Li Song, who works for a local radio station, told the FT. "There were not many police cars around yet and then people started screaming again and saying there were more attacks inside the station so we all started running away."

State media reports said four of the attackers were shot dead by police and one was captured but by Sunday evening there was still no word as to the fate of at least five more assailants described by witnesses and in state media reports.

The attacks came just two days before China's annual parliamentary session, which is scheduled to open on Monday and is traditionally a time of tight security throughout the country.