A policeman and fire-fighting trucks are seen near the site of an explosion, which has been cordoned off, in downtown Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, May 22, 2014 in this photo distributed by China's official Xinhua News Agency.
Several blasts tore through a market in China’s turbulent Xinjiang region, killing 31 people and underscoring the government’s challenge in confronting a spike in attacks it blames on ethnic Uighur separatists.
Two sport-utility vehicles plowed into the market in the regional capital of Urumqi as the occupants tossed out explosives, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, citing unidentified witnesses. One of the vehicles then blew up, Xinhua said. President Xi Jinping pledged to punish terrorists and spare no effort in maintaining stability, it said.
The attack escalated concern that the government hasn’t been able to contain the unrest in the northwestern area, where tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese have resulted in violence. It followed a bomb and knife attack at an Urumqi train station on April 30 that killed three people, and a train station assault in the southern city of Kunming in March that left 33 people dead.
An officer who answered the phone at a police station near the scene confirmed the blast occurred and declined further comment. Courts in Xinjiang sentenced 39 people to jail on May 20 for spreading terrorism.
Photos circulated on the Internet that purported to show the aftermath of today’s explosions showed at least three people lying on a tree-lined street strewn with produce about 50 yards in front of a fire. In a second photograph, a police official in a white helmet and flack jacket directed traffic away from the flames.
Local authorities had pushed to shut down the market last month to clear roads in the area and ease traffic, and then postponed the move until September after vendors complained, the Xinjiang government news portal Tianshan.net reported April 17.
China’s Public Security Minister Guo Shengkun and a working team left for Xinjiang after the “serious terrorist incident,” according to a statement posted on the ministry’s official microblog.
In October, a sport-utility vehicle rammed into a crowd and burst into flames at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing the three occupants and two bystanders.
After the train station attack in Urumqi, Xi visited the region and vowed decisive action to “resolutely suppress the terrorists’ rampant momentum.”
Authorities have blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement for past violence in Xinjiang. The movement was founded by a Uighur separatist and listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in 2002. China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said last year the group was the country’s most direct security threat.