KUNMING, CHINA – More than 10 assailants slashed scores of people with knives at a train station in southern China, drawing police fire, in what authorities called a terrorist assault by ethnic separatists based in the far west, state media said Sunday. Thirty-three people were killed and 130 wounded in the attack.
Police fatally shot four of the assailants, arrested one and were searching for the others following the attack late Saturday at the Kunming train station in Yunnan province, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Witnesses described attackers dressed in black storming the train station and attacking people indiscriminately.
Student Qiao Yunao, 16, was waiting to catch a train at the station when people starting crying out and running, and then saw a man slash 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 told The Associated Press 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 attackers’ identities were not yet confirmed, but evidence at the scene of the attack showed that it was “a terrorist attack carried out by Xinjiang separatist forces,” Xinhua quoted the municipal government as saying. Authorities considered it to be “an organized, premeditated violent terrorist attack.”
The far western region of Xinjiang is home to a simmering rebellion against Chinese rule by separatists among parts of the Muslim Uighur population.
Most attacks blamed on Uighur separatists take place in Xinjiang, where clashes between ethnic Uighurs and members of China’s ethnic Han majority are also frequent. Saturday’s assault took place more than 1,000 km to the southeast in Yunnan, which has not had a history of such unrest.
However, a suicide car attack blamed on Uighur separatists that killed five people at Beijing’s Tiananmen Gate last November raised alarms that militants could be changing tactics and aiming to strike at soft targets throughout the country.
In an indication of how seriously authorities viewed the attack — one of China’s deadliest in recent years — the country’s top police official, Politburo member Meng Jianzhu, arrived in Kunming on Sunday morning and went straight to the hospital to visit the wounded and their families, Xinhua reported.
The violence in Kunming came at a sensitive time as political leaders in Beijing prepared for Wednesday’s opening of the annual meeting of the nominal legislature where the government of President Xi Jinping will deliver its first one-year work report.
Xi called for “all-out efforts” to bring the culprits to justice. In a statement, the Security Management Bureau under the Ministry of Public Security said that police will “crack down the crimes in accordance with the law without any tolerance.”
A Xinhua reporter in Kunming said firefighters and emergency medical personnel were at the station and rushing injured people to hospitals, while police were investigating. The news agency said that in addition to the four attackers killed, 29 people described as civilians were confirmed dead and 130 injured.
More than 60 victims were taken to Kunming No. 1 People’s Hospital, where at least a dozen bodies also could be seen, according to Xinhua reporters at the hospital.
Yang Haifei, who was being treated at the hospital for chest and back wounds, told Xinhua that he saw a person “come straight at me with a long knife and I ran away with everyone.” People who were slow to escape ended up severely injured, he said. “They just fell on the ground.”
At a guard pavilion in front of the train station, three victims were crying. One of them, Yang Ziqing, told Xinhua that they were waiting for a train to Shanghai when a knife-wielding man suddenly came at them.
“My two town-fellows’ husbands have been rushed to hospital, but I can’t find my husband, and his phone went unanswered,” Yang sobbed.
Xinhua said some victims were migrant workers who were returning to factories after family reunions over the Chinese New Year.
Pictures on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, showed bodies covered in blood at the station. Footage on China’s state broadcaster CCTV showed a heavy police presence near the station and plainclothes agents wrapping a long knife in a plastic bag as investigators collected evidence following the attacks.
The Kunming railway station, located in the southeastern area of the city, is one of the largest in southwest China.
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 killing 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.