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Shoppers killed in Xinjiang attack

Assailants in two cars plowed through shoppers and set off explosives in a Chinese street market.

PT0M55S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-38s7a 620 349

Beijing:  A series of blasts at a morning market in Urumqi has killed at least 31 people and injured 94, in the deadliest attack of an escalating home-grown terror wave in China’s troubled far-western region of Xinjiang.

Shortly before 8am on Thursday, two vehicles, described as four-wheel drives by state media and numerous witnesses, tossed improvised explosives out of the window as they ploughed into crowds at the busy street market in downtown Urumqi. One of the vehicles subsequently exploded in the market, the official news agency Xinhua said.

Fires in the street after the explosions at a market in Urumqi. (Via Weibo)

Fires in the street after the explosions at a market in Urumqi. (Via Weibo)

The attack was the deadliest in an intensifying series of planned violence stemming from Xinjiang that apparently targeted innocent civilians in crowded public areas. It came after China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, warned of a long-term fight and promised to deliver a “crushing blow” against what he described as separatist forces during a high-profile visit to the region less than a month ago.

His visit then coincided with another grisly knife and bomb attack at a busy train station in Urumqi, which killed three people and injured 79, and which appeared to be deliberately timed for his visit.

Reports and witnesses of Thursday's bombing described as many as a dozen loud blasts. Fang Zhaoying, 76, who was tending her daughter’s grocery store at the market, said the blasts went off during the morning peak for the market, which was known to be more commonly frequented by Urumqi’s Han Chinese population.

Police officers stand guard near the blast site in a market in Urumqi.

Police officers stand guard near the blast site in a market in Urumqi. Photo: AP

“The blasts were loud as anything,” she said. “I went outside to look and saw people lying on the ground, before people told me to go back inside.”

Graphic photos purportedly taken at the scene were circulated on social media, showing numerous bloodied bodies on the street and many other injured being dragged away. Other images showed thick smoke billowing from spot fires as ambulance crews arrived and police began sealing off the area.

Zhang Xiaoning, who said he was a witness to the event, posted on China’s Twitter-like Weibo that he had to dive out of the way of the vehicles to avoid being hit.

People reacting to the explosions in a marketplace in Urumqi. (Via Weibo)

People reacting to the explosions in a marketplace in Urumqi. (Via Weibo) Photo: Fairfax

“I managed to react quickly and jumped out of the way,” he posted. “I looked back, and [people] were all lying on the road.”

He said the second car that sped through shortly after, a green four-wheel drive, had “Uighur language” slogans painted on its side and displayed “triangular flags”.

His posts were swiftly removed by internet censors.

The emerging pattern of mobile and seemingly random attacks highlight the difficulty of policing the volatile Xinjiang region, which is already under heavy armed police and paramilitary patrol.

Unlike most of the rest of China, which is predominantly Han Chinese, many parts of Xinjiang – an expansive region that shares borders with eight countries including Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan – remain largely home to the native Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic group. According to a 2010 census, Xinjiang's 22 million population comprises of 43 per cent Uighur, 40 per cent Han and the rest other minority groups.

But fast-paced development and an associated influx of Han Chinese economic migrants has resulted in larger cities in Xinjiang, including Urumqi, being transformed almost unrecognisably, sparking tensions among Uighurs who chafe at government policies they say discriminate against them and restrict their religious freedoms. 

In January, the government detained Ilham Tohti, a Beijing economics professor who has championed Uighur rights, and subsequently charged him with separatism amid wide condemnation from rights groups.

Xinjiang has been plagued with ethnic violence for years, and China attributes a series of knife and bomb attacks in recent months to separatist Uighur militants from Xinjiang.

Last month, an explosion killed three people and injured at least 79 at a central train station in Urumqi. On March 1, knife-wielding attackers slashed indiscriminately at passengers at a train station in Kunming, in south-western Yunnan province, killing 29 people and wounding more than 130.  

The attack on Thursday came a day after a mass sentencing in Xinjiang of 39 suspects found guilty of “spreading videos that incited violence” and “taking part in terrorist activities, advocating ethnic hatred and illegally manufacturing firearms”. One ringleader was sentenced to 15 years' jail.

with Sanghee Liu