BEIJING: Three people were killed and 79 others injured in an attack on a railway station in China’s Xinjiang late Wednesday, state media said, as the president wrapped up a trip to the restive region.
China’s official news agency Xinhua said attackers slashed people with knives and set off explosives at the south railway station in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, calling it a “violent terrorist attack”.
The assault came on the same day that President Xi Jinping ended his first visit as leader to the far western region of Xinjiang, home to the country’s mostly Muslim Uighur minority.
It was not immediately clear if the president, who earlier described the region as the “front line” against terrorism, was still in the area when the attack occurred.
The vast and nominally autonomous region of Xinjiang, where Uighurs are the largest ethnic group, is periodically hit by deadly clashes that authorities blame on terrorists but which rights groups say are driven by cultural repression.
Four people were seriously injured in the attack but were “in a stable condition” after being sent to hospital for treatment, Xinhua reported, citing local Communist Party officials.
President Xi moved swiftly to urge “‘decisive actions’ against violent terrorist attacks” following the incident, calling for “profound awareness of separatist forces”, Xinhua said.
“The battle to combat violence and terrorism will not allow even a moment of slackness, and decisive actions must be taken to resolutely suppress the terrorists’ rampant momentum,” the news agency quoted Xi as saying.
The blast, which occurred at 7.10pm local time, was “centred around luggage left on the ground between the station exit and a public bus stop,” Xinhua said, citing witnesses.
The station was closed after the incident and services suspended before being reopened at around 9pm local time under the heavy presence of armed police. An investigation into the attack is under way.
Many online postings relating to the incident on China’s Twitter-like microblog site Weibo were later removed by censors, including images from apparent witnesses showing debris and luggage scattered at the scene.
Zhang Bin was picking up a friend from the station when he heard a bang and fell to the ground, he told Xinhua from hospital.
“I’ve never expected such a thing could happen to me. If this was deliberate, I can’t understand why they hurt innocent civilians?” Zhang was quoted by the news agency as saying.
Beijing says it faces an increase in terrorist attacks from a violent separatist movement in Xinjiang driven by religious extremism, but critics accuse it of exaggerating that threat to justify hard-line measures.
In 2009 ethnic rioting in Urumqi between Turkic-speaking Uighurs and Han Chinese left around 200 people dead and resulted in a security crackdown, but more recently violence has spread beyond the region.
The latest assault came two months after a group of attackers state media said were Uighurs went on a stabbing spree at a railway station in the city of Kunming, capital of southwestern Yunnan province, leaving 29 people dead and 143 injured.
Four surviving members of what Beijing called a “terrorist gang” have been charged with carrying out the March 1 attack, dubbed “China’s 9/11” by state media, and are expected to receive the death penalty.
In a high-profile incident in October last year, three members of the same Xinjiang family crashed their car into tourists in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing two, before setting it on fire and dying in what authorities called a terrorist attack.
During his visit to Xinjiang, Xi called for tougher law enforcement but also for stepped-up assimilation of minorities, saying that the “long-term stability” of the region was “vital” for China’s development.
Xinhua quoted him as saying that China would deploy a “strike-first” strategy against what it called terrorists in the region.
But he added that Beijing would implement “appropriate policies to improve ethnic harmony and common prosperity of all ethnic groups”.
The attack on Xinjiang’s largest train station came one day before the scheduled opening of intercity railway lines linking Urumqi with the cities of Kuytun, Shihezi and Karamay, Xinhua said.