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China on edge after mass knifing

7:56 AM, Mar 2, 2014   |    comments
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(USA TODAY) BEIJING - China has suffered one of its deadliest ever acts of terror, according to authorities, after a group of more than 10 knife-wielding men killed at least 29 people and injured over 130 in a brutal assault at a train station in southwest China's Kunming city Saturday night.

Evidence at the scene "showed that the Kunming 'March 1' incident was a premeditated, organized, serious violent terrorist attack carried out by Xinjiang separatist forces," said the state news agency Xinhua Sunday, citing the Kunming city government.

China's far west region of Xinjiang is home to a decades-long, mostly low-grade insurgency by some of its native Uighur inhabitants opposed to Chinese Communist rule. In the past year, deadly attacks have increased, mostly on police stations likely chosen as symbols of Chinese power in Xinjiang.

If the assailants' identities are further confirmed, the attack Saturday marks a dramatic escalation of terror tactics to the rest of China, far from the Uighur homeland. A first indication of such a strategic change came last October, at the political heart of China, when a Uighur family drove a car into Beijing's Tiananmen Gate, killing themselves and two pedestrians in an explosion.

Beijing blames outside forces and religious extremists for fomenting trouble between the Uighurs, a mostly Muslim people, and the Han, China's majority ethnic group. Uighur activist groups accuse Chinese authorities of causing unrest through repressive, discriminatory policies. The U.S. State Department said last week there was "severe official repression of the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and assembly of ethnic Uighurs" in Xinjiang in 2013.

The attack occurred after 9 p.m. Saturday at Kunming's main railway station, packed with travelers after the long Chinese New Year break. A group of men, all dressed alike, charged into the main square in front of the station and the ticket hall, slashing people indiscriminately, reported the China News Service.

Police shot dead four of the more than 10 suspected attackers, captured one alive and are hunting the rest, according to Xinhua. Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping called for "all-out efforts" in the investigation and to "punish the terrorists in accordance with the law."

Chen Guizhen, 50, told Xinhua that her husband Xiong Wenguang, 59, was killed in the attack. "Why are the terrorists so cruel?" moaned Chen, holding Xiong's blood-stained ID card in her shaking hands. The couple, both farmers, were waiting for a train to take them to jobs in an east China city. "I can't believe he has just left me," she cried, reported Xinhua.

Survivor Yang Haifei, who was injured on his chest and back, was buying a ticket when he saw a group of people, mostly in black, charge in and start attacking. "I saw a person come straight at me with a long knife and I ran away with everyone," he told Xinhua, noting that people who were slower to escape were severely injured. "They just fell on the ground," he said.

Authorities said trains have resumed normal service, but a climate of fear remains. "I heard the events last night, it's horrible, I can still feel the atmosphere of panic here," said a receptionist, who only gave his surname, Wu, at the Kunming Tongyi Business Hotel near the station. "Police came to our hotel around 11 p.m. last night, they checked the information of all our guests," he said. "I wish all the suspects could be arrested, or I will really feel unsafe. They are so cruel."

Uighurs traveling outside Xinjiang are already subject to widespread suspicion and police checks when registering at hotels, and in some cases they are turned away. The bloodbath in Kunming may deepen prejudice against Uighurs and lead to stricter security measures nationwide.

The Communist Party is taking an increasingly hard line on Xinjiang, whose regional government announced last month it would double the police's 'counter-terrorism' budget for 2014, but "long-term Chinese policy itself is contributing to Xinjiang's unrest", wrote Michael Clarke, a Xinjiang expert at Australia's Griffith University, on the East Asia Forum website last week. If the Party doesn't address its role in stimulating disaffection, "the region will be doomed to repeat its cycle of unrest and violence," said Clarke.

No one should expect change to China's ruling system or territory, warned Zhu Weiqun, a senior political adviser, last week. "It is impossible for the Chinese nation to carry out 'one nation, one state', national self-determination or a federal system within the state," said Zhu, formerly an official in charge of ethnic issues, according to Xinhua.

"Unity is the mainstream along the development path of the Chinese nation," said Zhu, now a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, which starts its annual meeting in Beijing Monday. Different ethnic groups in China "mix with each other, and are interdependent economically, so they need one another," he said. Travelers to Xinjiang note the Uighur and Han often live quite isolated from each other in physically segregated communities.

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