BEIJING - China on Sunday blamed militants from the restive far western region of Xinjiang for an attack at a train station on the other side of the country by knife-wielding “terrorists” in which at least 33 died, including four of the assailants, who were shot dead.
The attack, which also left more than 130 people injured in the balmy southwestern city of Kunming late Saturday evening, marks a major escalation in the simmering unrest that has centered on Xinjiang, a heavily Muslim region strategically located on the borders of Central Asia.
It is the first time people from Xinjiang have been blamed for carrying out such a large-scale attack so far from their homeland, and follows an incident in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in October that shook the country’s Communist leadership.
The attack also comes at a sensitive time as China gears up for the annual meeting of parliament, which opens in Beijing on Wednesday and is normally accompanied by a tightening of security across the country.
China has stepped up security in Xinjiang after a vehicle plowed into tourists on the edge of Tiananmen Square, killing the three people in the car and two bystanders. China labeled it a suicide attack by militants from Xinjiang.
Xinjiang is home to the Muslim Uighur people, many of whom chafe at Chinese restrictions on their culture and religion.
China bristles at suggestions from exiles and rights groups that the unrest is driven more by unhappiness at government policies than by any serious threat from extremist groups who want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan.
The official Xinhua News Agency said the train station attack was “an organized, premeditated violent terrorist attack.”
“Evidence at the crime scene showed that the Kunming railway station terrorist attack was carried out by Xinjiang separatist forces,” Xinhua added, citing the Kunming government.
Police shot dead four of the attackers and detained one, Xinhua said, while approximately five others are on the run. It initially said five of the attackers had been killed.
Kunming resident Yang Haifei said he was buying a ticket when he saw a group of people, mostly wearing black, rush into the station and start attacking bystanders.
“I saw a person come straight at me with a long knife and I ran away with everyone,” he said, adding that the attackers struck those who were slower. “They just fell on the ground.”
Graphic pictures on the Twitter-like microblogging service Sina Weibo showed bodies covered in blood lying on the ground at the station. State television showed police wrapping a long, swordlike knife in a plastic bag, amid heavy security at the station.
President Xi Jinping ordered that no effort be spared to track down those behind the attack. Domestic security chief Meng Jianzhu was on his way to the scene, Xinhua said.
Weibo users took to the service to describe details of what happened, though many of the posts were quickly deleted by government censors, especially those that described the attackers, two of whom were identified by some as women.
Unrest in Xinjiang has killed more than 100 people in the past year, prompting authorities to toughen their stance.