Skip to main content

Terrorist attack kills dozens in China's tense Xinjiang region

By Jethro Mullen, CNN
updated 10:50 PM EDT, Thu May 22, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: U.S. says the attack is an "outrageous act of violence against innocent civilians"
  • The Chinese President calls for terrorists to be "severely" punished
  • The explosions have killed 31 people and wounded more than 90, Xinhua says
  • China says the attack is "a serious violent terrorist incident"

Hong Kong (CNN) -- A series of explosions tore through an open-air market in the capital of the volatile western Chinese region of Xinjiang on Thursday, killing dozens of people and wounding many more, state media reported.

China's Ministry of Public Security said the attack in the heavily policed city of Urumqi was "a serious violent terrorist incident" and vowed to crack down on its perpetrators. President Xi Jinping called for the terrorists behind it to be "severely" punished.

Two SUVs slammed into shoppers gathered at the market in Urumqi at 7:50 a.m. Thursday, and explosives were flung out of the vehicles, China's official news agency Xinhua said.

The vehicles then exploded, according to Xinhua, which said at least 31 people were killed and more than 90 wounded.

Location of incident  Location of incident
Location of incidentLocation of incident

Some of the photos circulating on social media suggested a hellish scene, with bodies strewn on the ground amid burning wreckage. Others showed flames and smoke billowing out of the end of a tree-lined street guarded by police officers.

'An enormous sound'

"I heard an enormous sound, then I looked out from my balcony," said a resident of a building near the explosion who would only give his surname, Shan.

He told CNN that trees obscured much of his view of the scene, but that he "could see there was chaos, with people injured."

Many of the victims caught in the blasts were elderly people who regularly visited the morning market, Xinhua reported.

"It's mainly people coming to trade vegetables, especially the elderly who get up early and buy vegetables to cook," Shan said.

The U.S. government condemned the attack.

"This is a despicable and outrageous act of violence against innocent civilians, and the United States resolutely opposes all forms of terrorism," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.

String of recent attacks

Chinese authorities have stepped up security measures in Xinjiang in recent months amid a series of attacks within the region and in major Chinese cities outside it.

On Wednesday, the day before the blasts, Xinhua reported that 39 people had been sentenced to prison in the past two months for "inciting violence" in Xinjiang.

But the devastating blasts Thursday suggest the government is facing a foe determined to wreak havoc.

Thursday's attack at the market comes less than a month after an explosion hit a train station in Urumqi, killing three people and wounding 79 others.

That blast took place on April 30, just after Xi had wrapped up a visit to the region.

Ethnic tensions

Chinese officials have linked a mass knife attack in March that killed 29 people at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming to Islamic separatists from Xinjiang.

Explosions in Xinjiang region of China

They have also blamed separatists for an attack in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in October in which a car rammed into a pedestrian bridge and burst into flames, killing two tourists and the three occupants of the vehicle.

The knife-wielding assailants in the Kunming attack and the people in the car that hit Tiananmen were identified as Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim ethnic group from Xinjiang.

Ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and Han Chinese people, millions of whom have migrated to resource-rich Xinjiang in recent decades, have repeatedly boiled over into deadly riots and clashes with authorities in recent years.

Some Uyghurs have expressed resentment over harsh treatment from Chinese security forces and Han people taking the lion's share of economic opportunities in Xinjiang. The Han are the predominant ethnic group in China, making up more than 90% of the overall population.

Shift in target

The pattern of ethnic violence in the region goes back decades, according to James Leibold, an expert in ethnic relations in China at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

"But what's new, and what I think is significant, is that we have a shift in target," Leibold said. "We have a targeting of innocent civilians, places where innocent civilians gather -- an attempt to maim innocent civilians in large numbers."

The other change is that the violence has "seeped outside" the borders of Xinjiang into other parts of China, he said.

It remains unclear who exactly is behind the high-profile attacks in recent months.

Chinese officials have pointed to a murky separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which they have blamed for violent acts in the past. East Turkestan is the name used by many Uyghur groups to refer to Xinjiang.

But analysts are divided about the extent of the ETIM's activities and its links to global terrorist networks like al Qaeda.

"Generally, the government response is to blame terrorists without providing many details," Leibold said. "So I suspect it's going to be very difficult to get to the bottom of this incident like previous ones."

Q&A: Xinjiang and tensions in China's restive far west

Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:53 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
China is building an island in the South China Sea that could accommodate an airstrip, according to IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.
updated 5:57 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
North Korean refugees face a daunting journey to reach asylum in South Korea, with gangs of smugglers the only option.
updated 6:19 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
China and "probably one or two other" countries have the capacity to shut down the nation's power grid and other critical infrastructure.
updated 5:39 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
It'd be hard to find another country that has spent as much, and as furiously, as China on giving its next generation a head start.
updated 12:32 AM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
In 1985, Meng Weina set up China's first private special needs school in the southern city of Guangzhou.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Despite China's inexorable economic rise, the U.S. is still an indispensable ally, especially in Asia. No one knows this more than the Asian giant's leaders, writes Kerry Brown.
updated 10:38 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
For the United States and China to announce a plan reducing carbon emissions by almost a third by the year 2030 is a watershed moment for climate politics on so many fronts.
updated 3:26 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
China shows off its new stealth fighter jet, but did it steal the design from an American company? Brian Todd reports.
updated 8:01 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Airshow China in Zhuhai provides a rare glimpse of China's military and commercial aviation hardware.
updated 8:14 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
A new exchange initiative aims to bridge relations between the two countries .
updated 12:51 AM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Xi and Abe's brief summit featured all the enthusiasm of two unhappy schoolboys forced to make up after a schoolyard dust-up.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Maybe you've decided to show your partner love with a new iPhone. But how about 99 of them?
updated 9:19 PM EST, Sun November 2, 2014
Can China's Muslim minority fit in? One school is at the heart of an ambitious experiment to assimilate China's Uyghurs.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of thousands of Americans learning Chinese.
updated 12:00 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou says he needs to maintain good economic ties with China while trying to keep Beijing's push for reunification at bay.
updated 1:28 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Chinese drone-maker DJI wants to make aerial photography drones mainstream despite concerns about privacy.
updated 1:18 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
A top retired general confesses to taking bribes, becoming the highest-profile figure in China's military to be caught up in war on corruption.
ADVERTISEMENT