KUNMING: China Sunday promised tough punishment for knife-wielding attackers who killed 29 people in an unprecedented train station rampage, blaming separatists from Xinjiang, as witnesses described a city in shock.
Victims spoke of black-clad attackers slashing indiscriminately as people queued to buy tickets late Saturday at Kunming station, in an incident that lasted about half an hour.
More than 130 were wounded in the attack in the city in the southwestern province of Yunnan, prompting shock and outrage nationwide.
Police shot dead at least four attackers, arrested one and were hunting for more, said the official Xinhua news agency, which in a commentary called the incident “China’s 9/11″ and a “severe crime against the humanity”.
A shop worker told AFP some of the victims took refuge in her store.
“Many were crying and some looked like they had been cut. We were terrified. Everyone in Kunming is still in shock,” she said.
China’s security chief Meng Jianzhu, who rushed to Kunming to oversee the operation, promised “all-out efforts” to “severely punish terrorists according to the law”, Xinhua said.
He “urged forcible measures to crack down on violent terrorism activities”, it added.
– Separatists blamed –
A heavy police presence was in place at the scene Sunday as locals left wreaths and held candlelit vigils.
Train services had resumed with 60,000 passengers expected to leave the station Sunday, Xinhua said, with security screening of passengers and luggage being carried out.
“I can’t believe this has happened in my city,” one commuter told AFP.
“But we have to continue with our lives, or the attackers would have won.”
Security has been increased at the city’s Changshui International Airport and there will be “enhanced” security at schools on Monday, Xinhua said.
The Kunming city government said the attack was orchestrated by separatists from the northwest region of Xinjiang, Xinhua reported.
Xinjiang, a vast area home to the mostly-Muslim Uighur minority, is periodically hit by violent clashes between locals and security forces but attacks targeting civilians are rarer.
Attacks are almost unheard of in Yunnan, more than 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from Xinjiang and a popular tourist destination.
It comes months after three members of the same Xinjiang family crashed their car into crowds of tourists in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the symbolic heart of the Chinese state, killing two people. They then set the vehicle on fire, killing themselves, according to authorities.
The attack also came days before delegates from across the Communist-ruled country gather in Beijing for the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, the rubber-stamp parliament.
Barry Sautman, an expert on ethnic politics in China at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the attack had “high symbolic value”.
“It shows that the organization that carried it out is able to strike anywhere,” he told AFP.
– ‘Stabbing whoever they saw’ –
Shoes and luggage were left abandoned across the blood-spattered station and some images showed police standing over bodies of the alleged attackers.
Victim Yang Haifei, who was wounded in the chest and back, told Xinhua he had been buying a ticket when the attackers approached.
“I saw a person come straight at me with a long knife and I ran away with everyone,” he said, while others “simply fell on the ground”.
The semi-official China News Service said a group of armed men had “burst into the train station plaza and the ticket hall, stabbing whoever they saw”.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned “in the strongest terms” the “terrible attack on civilians”, his spokesman said in a statement, adding he “hopes that those responsible will be brought to justice”.
His condemnation was echoed in a statement by the UN Security Council which said that “any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable regardless of their motivation”.
Pakistan, China’s closest Muslim ally, condemned the “barbaric terrorist attack” in a statement from the foreign ministry and said it was “ready to extend all possible cooperation” to China to combat terrorism.
– ‘They will go to hell’ –
Many Weibo users expressed outrage. Li Chengpeng, a social commentator and government critic who has more than seven million followers, said: “No matter who did this, for what purpose, and no matter which race, to target innocent people at a train station is an evil choice. Their hearts will be punished and they will go to hell.”
Beijing maintains that unrest in Xinjiang is caused by terrorist groups seeking independence, including the overseas-based East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
But its strength and links to global terrorism are murky, and some experts say China exaggerates the threat to justify tough security measures in Xinjiang, where rights groups complain of widespread religious repression and economic discrimination.
In an emailed statement, Dilshat Raxit of the exiled World Uyghur Congress said there was “no justification for attacks on civilians” but added that discriminatory and repressive policies provoked “extreme measures” in response.