Who's Behind The Mass Stabbing In China? : Parallels The government is accusing Muslim separatists, known as Uighurs, for the knife attacks that killed 29 at a train station. But the government hasn't provided hard evidence so far.

Who's Behind The Mass Stabbing In China?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Police in China say all suspects in this weekend's mass knife attack in the southwestern city of Kunming are now dead or in custody. The attackers killed 29 people and injured more than 140 in a massacre at a crowded rail station. Victims describe a gang dressed in black, chasing and slashing people in and around the station. Authorities are blaming Muslim separatists from the country's northwest for what Chinese state-run media are calling China's 9/11.

NPR's Frank Langfitt joins me now from Kunming. And, Frank, what more can you tell us about the people who carried out this attack?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, we don't know that much, and we're going with what the police are saying. They announced the arrest of three suspects today. That's in addition to four dead that the police say they shot on Saturday and one who was wounded and captured at the scene. They gave the name of a leader. He's called Abdurehim Kurban. We don't know much more about him. New China News Service isn't saying exactly who he is. And they're saying, all in all, it was a gang of eight people. Now, of course, that's a lot of damage by not a lot of people who were just armed with knives.

BLOCK: And, Frank, the Chinese government has been blaming Uyghur separatists for this massacre. Remind us who the Uyghurs are and the tensions that there have been with the Chinese government.

LANGFITT: Well, they're Muslim Turkic-speaking people. There are about 9 million of them in China. They live all around the country. There are some in my neighborhood in Shanghai. But their heartland is a place called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It's in the far northwest. Incidentally, it's very rich in resources, 40 percent of China's coal comes from there.

The Uyghurs are Central Asian. They don't look like ethnic Chinese. They don't really have anything culturally in common with Chinese, and they've complained for years that their region really isn't autonomous at all. The Chinese call the shots. They'll get enough access to jobs and schooling as China's economy has been taking off. Now, there are some support, maybe not that much for a separate state, but most seem just resentful and would like to see a better deal.

BLOCK: But one of many puzzling things about this massacre, Frank, is that the attack happened in Kunming, which is nowhere near the Uyghur heartland that you've been talking about.

LANGFITT: Yeah. This is - the whole attack is really extraordinary, and there have been attacks before. You know, Uyghurs will attack police stations, and they might use guns and they might use homemade explosives. But it tends to be in Xinjiang - usually in southern Xinjiang. We've never seen anything outside the region like this. And so, that's one of the things that really has caught people off guard.

I talked to some people here in town, and they think that one of the reasons they chose the city is they wanted to make a statement but they wanted to go after a softer target than, say, Beijing and Shanghai, which has a really big police presence.

BLOCK: Is there anything known about the religious background of the attackers?

LANGFITT: Well, we really don't know. The police are telling us very little. I'd like to emphasize that to people. One thing that's striking is they were all clad in black, and this is a change from what we've seen in the past. There was at least one, maybe two women, in long dresses and veils, so that gave the appearance at least of them being strict Muslims. And this is like a kind of change.

Uyghurs are not particularly adherence of Islamism. They're mostly quite moderate. And one man that I met who was in the crowd that night at the station, when he saw these women, he said, they reminded him of the black widows. And he was referring to Chechen female suicide bombers who've dressed similarly.

BLOCK: I would think, Frank, that would be the kind of story that Chinese authorities would try to clamp down on, would not want to give reporters access. But you were able to get into the hospital and talk to victims.

LANGFITT: Yeah. This was a big change because the last time I tried to get into a hospital on a sensitive story, Melissa, I had to actually sneak in at midnight. This was very, very different. I basically was able to walk into patients' rooms. There are cops. There were questions. There were other officials there. I had to sign in. But nobody tried to stop me. And I think what was going on here is China gets a lot of criticism about how it treats its minorities, the Uyghurs and the Tibetans. That's very sensitive criticism.

And I think that authorities actually wanted reporters to be here. They wanted to talk to the victims, and they wanted reporters to get the story out to the rest of the world so that maybe people would understand, to some degree, what China is dealing with and maybe see it from the Chinese government's point of view.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting on the massacre this weekend in Kunming, China. Frank, thanks very much.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Melissa.

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