URUMQI, CHINA – A bombing in western China that killed three people and wounded 79 on Wednesday has raised concerns about the apparent sophistication and daring of the attack, which possibly was timed to coincide with a visit to the heavily Muslim region by President Xi Jinping.
Assailants used explosives and knives in the attack on a railway station in Urumqi. It was the first bomb attack in the capital of Xinjiang province in 17 years and came at a time of likely heavy security soon after a train arrived from a mainly Han Chinese province.
The government blamed the attack on “terrorists,” a term it uses to describe Islamist militants and separatists in Xinjiang who have waged a sometimes violent campaign for an independent state of East Turkestan, stirring fears that jihadist groups could become active in western China.
Initial accounts of the attack came almost exclusively from Chinese state media, which did not say if Xi, who was wrapping up his visit, was anywhere near Urumqi at the time.
Pan Zhiping, a retired expert on Central Asia at Xinjiang’s Academy of Social Science, described the attack as very well organized, saying it was timed to coincide with Xi’s visit. “It is very clear that they are challenging the Chinese government,” he said. “There was a time last year when they were targeting the public security bureau, the police stations and the troops. Now it’s indiscriminate — terrorist activities are conducted in places where people gather the most.”
The attack was the first bombing in Urumqi since men planted bombs in buses in 1997, killing nine people.
It was also the largest militant attack there since ethnic Uighurs — a Muslim community in western China — stabbed hundreds of Han Chinese with needles in 2009.No one was killed, but the incident led to protests demanding the ouster of the region’s top official for failing to protect Han people, China’s majority ethnic group.
“Knife-wielding mobs” slashed at people at an exit of the South Railway Station of Urumqi on Wednesday night and set off explosives, Xinhua News Agency said, quoting police.
There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack.
Xinjiang’s regional government said on its official news website Thursday that the attack had been carried out by two men who had “long been influenced by extremist religious thought and participated in extremist religious activities.”
Both were killed in the blast, it said. It identified one of them as Sedirdin Sawut, a 39-year-old man from Xayar County in Xinjiang’s Aksu region. He was a Uighur, judging by his name.
Debris was strewn on the ground after the explosion, though iron railings were left standing, according to images shown by state broadcaster CCTV. Paramilitary officers with rifles guarded the station, with several ambulances parked nearby.
The attack came on the eve of a two-day Labor Day holiday, a time of heavy travel in China, and just as Han passengers were likely to be disembarking from a train from Chengdu, capital of southwestern Sichuan province, Xinhua said.
Pan said the attack could also bolster a more hard-line effort by the government to fight terrorism. “It appears that our intelligence work is still not up to speed,” he said. “But it’s difficult in these circumstances. They are working in the dark, and it’ll be hard to completely eliminate.”
Exiles and many human rights groups say the cause of unrest in the resource-rich and strategically located region is heavy-handed rule by authorities, including curbs on Islam and the culture and language of its Uighur people.
Urumqi is heavily populated by Han Chinese, who have flooded there seeking business opportunities. Uighurs have complained that they have been frozen out of the job market. Many were reluctant to talk to reporters.
Unrest in Xinjiang has caused the deaths of more than 100 people in the past year, prompting a tougher stance against Uighurs, who speak a language in the Turkic family and many of whom resent government controls on their culture and religion.
The U.S. State Department’s 2013 country reports on terrorism, published last month, said China’s cooperation on fighting terrorism “remained marginal” and that the Chinese had provided scarce evidence to prove terrorist involvement in incidents in Xinjiang.
But the U.S. State Department said all signs point to the new attack being the work of terrorists.