Updated: 03/02/2014 15:37 | By Agence France-Presse

Xinjiang separatists kill 29 in China rail attack

Knife-wielding attackers killed 29 people and wounded more than 130 in an unprecedented assault at a Chinese train station, state media reported, blaming separatists from Xinjiang. 

Xinjiang separatists kill 29 in China rail attack

A police investigator inspects the scene of a mass stabbing at the railway station in Kunming, southwest China's Yunnan province, on March 2, 2014 - by -

Victims described attackers dressed in black bursting into Kunming station in the southwestern province of Yunnan and slashing indiscriminately as people queued to buy tickets late Saturday, prompting shock and outrage.

Police shot dead at least four attackers, had 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".

The Kunming city government said the "terrorist" attack was orchestrated by separatists from the northwest region of Xinjiang, a vast and distant area home to the mostly-Muslim Uighur minority, Xinhua reported.

Xinjiang is periodically hit by violent clashes between locals and security forces but attacks targeting civilians are rarer. They are almost unheard of in Yunnan, more than 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) from Xinjiang and a popular tourist destination.

The attack comes months after three members of the same family from Xinjiang 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 and killed themselves, according to authorities.

It 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 rubberstamp parliament.

Major Chinese train stations have security and identity checkpoints on entry. Barry Sautman, an expert on ethnic politics in China at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the attack had "high symbolic value". 

- 'Stabbing whoever they saw' -

Victim Yang Haifei, who was wounded in the chest and back, told Xinhua he had been buying a train 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". 

Some who escaped were desperately searching for missing loved ones. 

"I can't find my husband, and his phone went unanswered," Yang Ziqing was quoted as saying. 

She had been waiting for her train to Shanghai when a knife-wielding man suddenly came at them, she said.

Officers sealed off a wide area around the station, reports said, while police were questioning people at the site. 

The attackers were dressed in similar black clothing, the semi-official China News Service said, citing witnesses.

"A group of men carrying weapons burst into the train station plaza and the ticket hall, stabbing whoever they saw," it said.

Photos posted on Sina Weibo -- a Chinese version of Twitter -- showed blood spattered across the station floor and medical staff crouching over bodies lying on the ground, although the authenticity of the images could not be verified.

Pictures on news portal 163.com also showed what it claimed was one of the attackers, lying on a stretcher surrounded by police.

Other online images showed spectacles, shoes and baggage strewn across the floor of the waiting room behind police tape.

President Xi Jinping called for "all-out efforts" in the investigation and for the attackers to be punished "in accordance with the law", Xinhua said, and Beijing's top security official Meng Jianzhu went to Kunming.

- 'They will go to hell' -

Many Weibo users expressed outrage. "Targeting ordinary people in a terrorist attack is disgraceful," said one. "They have nothing to do with this issue."

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."

As NPC delegates called for a crackdown, Xinhua said in a commentary that the attack had shrouded "the whole nation in terror".

"Mothers, sons and daughters were slaughtered by strangers," it said. "Nothing justifies such a carnage against innocent civilians. A nationwide outrage has been stirred."

Incidents involving Uighurs are often labelled "terrorist attacks" by Chinese authorities, although the description is rarely used for incidents carried out by members of the Han ethnic majority seen as having grievances against society or the state.

Beijing maintains that unrest in Xinjiang is caused by terrorist groups seeking independence, including the overseas-based East Turkestan Islamic Movement. 

But the group's strength and links to global terrorism are murky, and some experts say China exaggerates its threat to justify tough security measures in Xinjiang.

Uighur rights groups complain of widespread religious repression and economic discrimination.

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