(Changes dateline, byline, adds colour)
By Michael Martina
URUMQI, China May 22 Explosives hurled from two
vehicles which ploughed into an open market in China's troubled
Xinjiang region killed 31 people on Thursday, state media
reported, the deadliest act of violence in the region in years.
China called the attack in the regional capital of Urumqi a
"serious violent terrorist incident" and domestic security chief
Meng Jianzhu vowed to strengthen a crackdown on the "arrogance
of terrorists". Ninety-four people were wounded.
China has blamed a series of knife and bomb attacks in
recent months on separatist militants from Xinjiang, the
traditional home of the ethnic Muslim Uighurs.
The cross-country vehicles rammed into shoppers in an open
market, Xinhua news agency reported, citing witness reports.
Explosives were flung out of the windows, and one of the
At the rainsoaked scene of the attack late in the evening,
surrounded by police vans, elite police units guarded a
cordoned-off candlelight display for victims.
Police kept away onlookers trying to take photographs and
blocked foreign reporters from approaching the area.
One witness told Reuters he saw the aftermath of the blasts
on his way to work. "The air was full of the smell of gunpowder
and the sound of sobbing," he said. "There were simply too many
(casualties), old folks who were at the morning market."
A business owner told Xinhua he had heard a dozen loud
explosions at the market near Renmin Park in downtown Urumqi.
Xinjiang has been plagued by violence for years, but rights
activists and exile groups say the government's own heavy handed
policies in the region have sowed the seeds of unrest.
Photos posted on social media purportedly of the blast, but
not verified by Reuters, showed a column of smoke and chaos at
the market, with bloodied people lying on the tree-lined road
near small stands selling fruit, vegetables and eggs.
"There were two vehicles that drove like crazy towards the
morning market," another witness who declined to give his name
told Reuters by telephone. "The market was total chaos. Hawkers
and shoppers started running everywhere... it was definitely a
terrorist act. I'm so angry."
Other photos showed riot police on the scene and bodies
lying amid flames. Produce and debris were scattered across the
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur
Congress, said in an e-mail to Reuters that while he was unsure
who carried out the attack, he believed Beijing's policies in
the region should be examined.
"The volatility of the situation and Beijing's repressive
policies in the area have a direct relationship to this," Raxit
said. "I urge Beijing not to use this incident as an excuse to
expand repressive policies, and instead to adjust policies to
ameliorate a deteriorating situation."
"TERRORISTS SWOLLEN WITH ARROGANCE"
The Xinjiang government could not be immediately reached for
comment, but China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said
the attack "should be condemned jointly by the Chinese people
and the international community".
"The Chinese government has the confidence and the ability
to combat the terrorists," Hong said at a daily news briefing.
"These terrorists are swollen with arrogance. Their schemes will
In a posting on its Chinese-language microblog account, the
U.S. Embassy said it offered condolences to victims of the
"violent attack", but stopped short of labelling it terrorism.
In contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed
condolences over what he called the "terrorist act" in Urumqi in
a telegram to Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday, the
Kremlin said, a day after a visit to Shanghai that produced a
landmark agreement on supplies of Russian natural gas to China.
President Xi said police would tighten security at possible
targets and vowed to "severely punish terrorists", Xinhua
The attack was the deadliest in a recent series targeting
crowded public places in China. In March, 29 people were stabbed
to death at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming.
A bomb and knife attack earlier this month at an Urumqi
train station killed one bystander and wounded 79. A car burst
into flames at the edge of Beijing's Tiananmen Square in
October, killing five people.
China has said Islamist militants from Xinjiang carried out
the attacks. Separatist groups in Xinjiang are seeking to form
their own state called East Turkestan.
Xinjiang, resource-rich and strategically located on the
borders of central Asia, is home to the Uighur people, who speak
a Turkic language and are culturally distinct from China's
ethnic Han majority.
Violent riots shook the region in 2009, when hundreds of
locals took to the streets in Urumqi, burning and smashing
vehicles. Dozens were killed in the unrest.
Exiles and rights groups say China's repressive policies,
targeting Uighurs' religious freedom and economic opportunities,
were to blame for unrest.
In recent weeks, China has intensified a crackdown on
Uighurs in the region, jailing dozens for spreading extremist
propaganda and manufacturing arms, among other charges.
Christopher Johnson, a former China analyst at the CIA, said
China's leadership may eventually realise that a policy of
constantly tightening controls on Xinjiang may not be effective
in preventing attacks.
"I'm kind of doubtful that they are going to announce some
sort of more liberal policy," said Johnson, who now works at the
Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"But sooner or later I think they are going to have to come
to that reality because the evidence is just smacking them in
(Additional reporting by Joseph Campbell in Urumqi, Megha
Rajagopalan, Li Hui, Shao Xiaoyi, Bi Xiaowen, Sui-Lee Wee and
Paul Carsten in Beijing and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Editing
by Nick Macfie, Simon Cameron-Moore and Ron Popeski)