Attack On Market In Northwest China Leaves At Least 31 Dead

China's state-run news agency says more than two dozen people have been killed in an attack on a busy street market in the capital of the country's volatile northwestern region of Xinjiang.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's go next to China, where attackers struck a market today. It happened in Urumqi, which is the capital of China's Northwest region. That's a region somewhat different than the rest of China. For one thing, it has a heavy concentration of Muslims.

Chinese state media say the attackers killed 31 people, and injured many more. It's the second major attack in that city in less than a month. So we're going to talk about this with NPR's Frank Langfitt, who's covering the story from Shanghai.

Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is the government saying happened here?

LANGFITT: Well, they're saying what happened, it happened in what was called a morning market downtown in Urumqi. People sell fruits and vegetables on the sidewalks. And they say just before 8 o'clock, the peak buying time, two vehicles drove into the market on opposite directions, hitting people as they went and throwing explosives. And at the end, at least one vehicle blew itself up.

INSKEEP: So we're talking about an attack by car and an explosion, but not necessarily a car bombing here, right?

LANGFITT: We don't know. All we know is at least one of the vehicles blew up.

INSKEEP: And there was nothing connected to the government or the military about this target. It was a civilian area. It was a market.

LANGFITT: Absolutely. Every city you go to in China has these morning markets. It's common.

INSKEEP: And I want to mention that Frank Langfitt has sent us a link to some photographs of what has happened here. Frank's looking at them in China. I'm looking at them here. And, Frank, these are quite disturbing. You have scenes of ordinary life. You have eggs for sale, cartons of eggs on a table, and behind it, the smoke from this fire. You have flames at the end of the street. These are troubling photos.

LANGFITT: They're very graphic. Social media does attempt to capture some of these attacks, but I haven't seen pictures that really illustrate it quite this way. I mean, right now I'm looking at a photograph of literally four bodies lying on the street. And there's a woman next to them who's in a red jacket. She looks dazed. She has blood coming off of her forehead. And in the distance down the block, it looks like one of the burning vehicles.

INSKEEP: All right. So, we don't know that this is literally a bombing. We do know that a vehicle exploded as attackers were going after people in this market. Who did this, as best anyone knows? Who's taken responsibility, if anyone?

LANGFITT: Nobody yet. And the government hasn't named anybody yet. But this is really interesting, Steve: This is the third high-profile attack in China in the last three months, and the last two were attributed to Uighur separatists, Muslim Chinese who live up in the north. And they're Muslim Turkic people. They live in Xinjiang, the autonomous region in the northwest. And they have complained over the years about government restrictions in religion, migration of a lot of ethnic Han Chinese into the region. They feel they're losing economic opportunities to those folks. Now, the last attack that we saw was April 30th. It was a bombing actually at the Urumqi train station. One civilian died. And an Islamist militant group called the Turkistan Islamist Party took responsibility for that. And before that in early March, there were 29 people killed in this mass stabbing that I covered in Kunming in southwest China, and the government also blamed that on Uighur separatists.

INSKEEP: Does the timing of each of these attacks tell you anything about them?

LANGFITT: Well, again, we don't know who was behind this, and we don't know exactly what they were thinking. But it's very striking. You know, on Tuesday, we were covering Xi Jinping at an Asian security summit here in Shanghai. And he was talking to the presidents of Russia and central Asia. And one of the things there were talking about was fighting terrorism. And then today, we see an attack in Urumqi. And what's interesting about these recent attacks is they all seem to have coincided with big political events. The train station bombing in Urumqi at the end of April, actually Xi Jinping, the president of China, was in Urumqi that day. It was very bold. And then the stabbings that I was talking about, that was actually around the time of the opening of China's parliament. So, as you look at the timing, it would seem to be political.

INSKEEP: How are the authorities responding to all this?

LANGFITT: They have sent - the minister of public security has gone out to Urumqi to look into it. Xi Jinping is very angry about this and labeling it terrorism, which I think it clearly is. And what's striking though is we've never seen such a succession of attacks like this. And one of the challenges here in China, you know, this is an authoritarian state. There's a very strong security apparatus, a lot of closed-circuit TV cameras. But as you watch these attacks, whoever's behind them, it seems that they're able to do it with relative ease. In fairness to the Chinese authorities, this is the most populous country in the world. There are lots - there are countless soft targets, like the one we saw this morning. But I'm sure today, President Xi is asking how whoever's behind these attacks are continuing to be able to stage them.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt is in Shanghai. Frank, thanks very much.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Steve.

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Correction May 22, 2014

A previous headline on this page assigned responsibility for the attack. But at the time the story was published, it had not been determined who was responsible.

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