Skip to main content

China launches terrorism crackdown after Xinjiang region attack

By Jethro Mullen and Kevin Wang, CNN
updated 12:43 PM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • State news agency: China begins "one-year crackdown on violent terrorist activities"
  • The report offers no details of the crackdown, but authorities tighten security at entry ports
  • Thursday's explosions killed at least 39 people and wounded more than 90, state media say

Hong Kong (CNN) -- China has launched a terrorism crackdown one day after a series of explosions in an open-air market killed dozens in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, the country's state news agency, Xinhua said Friday.

Without any details, the report said authorities had undertaken a "one-year crackdown on violent terrorist activities" in the volatile region after blasts in the heavily policed city of Urumqi killed at least 39 people and wounded more than 90, according to state media. The number of dead does not include the attackers.

The state news agency reported Friday that five attackers were responsible for the blasts; four were killed in the explosions, and a fifth was arrested Thursday. They were identified through DNA testing, Xinhua said.

In Urumqi, authorities tightened security checks at entry ports in an attempt to curb weapons smuggling, including inspections of individuals, luggage, transport facilities and postal deliveries at land border crossings, Xinhua reported Friday.

After visiting the injured and the scene of the explosions, Guo Shengkun, minister of public security, called for severe punishment for those responsible, state media said.

President Xi Jinping also called for the terrorists behind it to be "severely" punished.

Explosions in Xinjiang region of China
Location of incident  Location of incident
Location of incidentLocation of incident

Two SUVs slammed into shoppers gathered at the market in Urumqi at 7:50 a.m. Thursday, and explosives were flung out of the vehicles, Xinhua said.

The vehicles then exploded, according to the news agency.

Some of the photos circulating on social media suggested a hellish scene, with bodies strewn on the ground amid burning wreckage. Others showed flames and smoke billowing out of the end of a tree-lined street guarded by police.

'An enormous sound'

"I heard an enormous sound, then I looked out from my balcony," said a resident of a building near the explosion who would only give his surname, Shan.

He told CNN that trees obscured much of his view of the scene, but that he "could see there was chaos, with people injured."

Many of the victims caught in the blasts were elderly people who regularly visited the morning market, Xinhua reported.

"It's mainly people coming to trade vegetables, especially the elderly who get up early and buy vegetables to cook," Shan said.

The U.S. government condemned the attack.

"This is a despicable and outrageous act of violence against innocent civilians, and the United States resolutely opposes all forms of terrorism," White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.

String of recent attacks

Chinese authorities have stepped up security measures in Xinjiang in recent months amid a series of attacks within the region and in other major Chinese cities.

On Wednesday, Xinhua reported that 39 people had been sentenced to prison in the past two months for "inciting violence" in Xinjiang.

But Thursday's devastating blasts suggest the government is facing a foe determined to wreak havoc.

The market attack comes less than a month after an explosion hit a train station in Urumqi, killing three people and wounding 79 others.

The April 30 blast occurred just after Xi had wrapped up a visit to the region.

Ethnic tensions

Chinese officials have linked a mass knife attack in March that killed 29 people at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming to Islamic separatists from Xinjiang.

They have also blamed separatists for an October attack in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in which a car rammed into a pedestrian bridge and burst into flames, killing two tourists and the three occupants of the vehicle.

The knife-wielding assailants in the Kunming attack and the people in the car that hit Tiananmen were identified as Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim ethnic group from Xinjiang.

Ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and Han Chinese people, millions of whom have migrated to resource-rich Xinjiang in recent decades, have repeatedly boiled over into deadly riots and clashes with authorities in recent years.

Some Uyghurs have expressed resentment over harsh treatment from Chinese security forces and Han people taking the lion's share of economic opportunities in Xinjiang. The Han are the predominant ethnic group in China, making up more than 90% of the overall population.

Shift in targets

The pattern of ethnic violence in the region goes back decades, according to James Leibold, an expert in ethnic relations in China at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

"But what's new, and what I think is significant, is that we have a shift in target," Leibold said. "We have a targeting of innocent civilians, places where innocent civilians gather -- an attempt to maim innocent civilians in large numbers."

The other change is that the violence has "seeped outside" the borders of Xinjiang into other parts of China, he said.

It remains unclear who is behind the recent high-profile attacks.

Chinese officials have pointed to a murky separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which they have blamed for violent acts in the past. East Turkestan is the name used by many Uyghur groups to refer to Xinjiang.

But analysts are divided about the extent of the that group's activities and its links to global terrorist networks such as al Qaeda.

"Generally, the government response is to blame terrorists without providing many details," Leibold said. "So I suspect it's going to be very difficult to get to the bottom of this incident like previous ones."

Q&A: Xinjiang and tensions in China's restive far west

Part of complete coverage on
See CNN's complete coverage on China.
updated 10:30 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
updated 5:11 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Is Xi Jinping a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
updated 11:44 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
updated 2:31 AM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
updated 7:24 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
updated 12:14 AM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
Hong Kong's narrow streets were once a dazzling gallery of neon, where banks and even bordellos plied their trade under sizzling tubular signs.
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
updated 7:59 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
Three more officials have been given the chop as part of China's anti-corruption drive, including former aides to the retired security chief.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
As thousands of Hong Kongers prepare for an annual protest, voices in China's press warn pro-democracy activism is a bad idea.
updated 12:37 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Hong Kongers are demanding the right to directly elect their next leader, setting up a face-off with Beijing.
updated 2:56 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
updated 4:36 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
updated 11:34 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
Anna Coren visits Yulin's annual dog meat festival. Dogs are part of the daily diet here, with an estimated 10,000 dogs killed for the festival alone.
updated 2:38 AM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
People know little about sex, but are having plenty of it. We take a look at the ramifications of a lack of sex education in China.
updated 4:12 AM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
Hong Kongers have reacted angrily to a Chinese government white paper affirming Beijing's control over the territory.
The emphasis on national glory -- rather than purely personal achievement -- is key.
updated 12:14 PM EDT, Mon June 16, 2014
A replica of the Effel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development located in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province.
What's the Eiffel Tower doing in China? Replica towns of the world's most famous monuments spring up all over China.
updated 8:13 PM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
Rapid development hasn't just boosted the economy -- it has opened up vast swathes of the country, says a man who has spent much of his life exploring it.
updated 2:54 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
The World Cup is apparently making a lot of people "ill" in China.
ADVERTISEMENT