Two vehicles tore into a popular early morning street market in the western Chinese city of Urumqi, killing 31 and injuring 94 as they zigzagged to hit shoppers and lobbed homemade bombs.
It was China’s third major terrorist attack since March and the worst yet, despite a new counter-terrorism campaign that has seen armed police patrols in several major cities and armoured personnel carriers on the streets of Beijing.
Eyewitnesses said two black vehicles flying flags drove into a street market near the city’s People’s Park and deliberately drove into shoppers.
The attack occurred just before 8am Beijing time, or 6am local time, just as the city’s residents, especially the retired and elderly, were out buying food for the day.
“This is a place where lots of people get together in the morning,” said one woman, whose mother, younger sister and brother-in-law were wounded and being treated in hospital. She asked not to be named, fearful that she would “get into trouble” with the authorities.
China silences last voice of dissent on Xinjiang 26 Feb 2014
Chinese police shoot dead 14 during riot in Xinjiang 16 Dec 2013
China ‘terror incident’ in Xinjiang ‘kills 21 people’ 24 Apr 2013
“There were two vehicles which dropped at least four bombs and they swerved to hit anyone in their path. Some policemen were shooting at them but it did not make any difference. My family was running and trying to crouch but other people fell on top of them in the chaos,” she said. “The whole atmosphere in Urumqi is tense”.
Another eyewitness named Zhang Xiaoyu wrote on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, that the vehicles had carried flags written in Uighur, the language of the local Muslim population.
“I reacted quickly. One second before the car hit me, I jumped out of its path. I looked around and saw lots of people lying on the ground. Afterwards a second car came near me. It looked like a dark green Toyota with a triangle-shaped flag and lots of slogans sprayed on it,” he wrote.
Photographs from the scene showed bodies littered across the road amid small fires. There were reports that one of the vehicles had exploded at the scene.
Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, visited Urumqi last month, calling it the “front line” in China’s battle against terrorism and watching a police anti-terrorism drill.
China must “make terrorists like rats scurrying across a street, with everybody shouting ‘beat them!’” he said, according to Xinhua, the official news agency.
In response, terrorists detonated a bomb at Urumqi’s train station on the day that Mr Xi left the city. In March, attackers armed with knives assaulted a train station in the southern city of Kunming, leaving more than 30 dead.
China has battled small scale terrorism on its Western borders for decades, claiming that radicals have infiltrated the region from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
As in Tibet, the local Uighur population complains that Beijing’s policies have left them economically marginalised and second-class citizens.
However the scale of this year’s attacks is a step change. “Compared with the 1990s, terrorists are now branching out into more areas of the country and we are also seeing more suicide attacks, rather than remote-controlled bombs or poisonings,” said Li Wei, the director of the anti-terrorism center at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.
“These terrorists destroy their identification documents beforehand, which shows their determination to launch a suicide attack. Before the terrorists targeted police and government officials as well as civilians. Now the police are upgrading their equipment, and some terrorists are shifting their focus to civilians to cause panic,” he added.
The market was in a predominately Han Chinese part of Urumqi; residents said the city’s Han and Uighur populations have been divided since ethnic riots in 2009. “The Han live on the North side of Erdao bridge and the Uighurs live on the South side,” said one resident. However, some vendors at the market were ethnic Uighurs or Hui Muslims.
Mr Li added that China’s new counter-terrorism strategy would take time to produce results. “So far the government is doing well in terms of reacting quickly and deploying more and more manpower to fighting terrorism,” he said. “But there could be an improvement in collecting intelligence, although of course intelligence cannot predict every attack.”