Paramilitary policemen gesture to stop a photographer from taking pictures as they stand guard after explosives attack hit downtown Urumqi on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

Five suicide bombers were responsible for killing 31 in Xinjiang attack: state media

Five suicide bombers blew themselves up in Urumqi on Thursday, causing the deaths of 31 people and wounding a further 94 at an open air market, in an attack blamed on terrorists

Five suicide bombers carried out the attack that killed 31 people in the capital of troubled Xinjiang region, state media reported a day after the deadliest terrorist attack to date in the area.

The incident, which occurred in Urumqi on Thursday morning, was the second suicide attack in the capital in just over three weeks. A bomb and knife attack at an Urumqi train station in late April killed one bystander and wounded 79.

The government blames Islamists and separatists for the worsening violence in Xinjiang, the resource-rich western region bordering central Asia. At least 180 people have been killed in attacks across China.

The attackers ploughed two vehicles into an open market in Urumqi and hurled explosives. Many of the 94 people wounded were elderly shoppers, according to witnesses.

“Five suspects who participated in the violent terrorist attack blew themselves up,” the , a tabloid run by the , the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, reported on Friday.

The newspaper said authorities “are investigating whether there were other accomplices”.

Exiles and many rights groups say the real cause of the unrest in Xinjiang is Beijing’s heavy-handed policies, including curbs on Islam and the culture and language of ethnic Uygurs, a Turkic speaking Muslim people.

The Uygurs have long complained of official discrimination in favour of the Han people, China’s majority ethnic group.

A woman points to a window damaged by the explosion in Urumqi on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

Residents said the morning market, where the attack occurred, was predominantly frequented by Han Chinese customers, though many of the vendors are Uygurs.

A Han Chinese man, surnamed Zheng, said he had left the market just 20 minutes before the attack occurred. He said after he heard the blast, he rushed back to see plumes of black smoke rising into the sky and people running away.

“How are people supposed to live life when you can’t even go to buy vegetables? It’s so terrible,” he told reporters. “That is what the terrorists are after. They want to have a political impact, so they target large groups.”

“I just got here, but if I had the means, I’d consider leaving Urumqi for someplace safer,” Zheng said, adding that other morning markets were also closed.

China has been grappling with a rise in suicide attacks. A car burst into flames at the edge of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in October, killing five people.

“It looks like [the Chinese authorities] have a metastasizing domestic terrorism problem,” Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert with the US-based think tank the Brookings Institution, said.

“I think the evidence suggests to date that if anything, the rethink [on Xinjiang policy] will be to get tougher.”

Pan Zhiping, a retired expert on Central Asia at Xinjiang’s Academy of Social Science, said Thursday’s attack was the deadliest ever in the region.

Armed policemen stand guard in Urumqi after five suicide bombers in two SUVs plowed through shoppers while setting off explosives at a busy street market on Thursday. Photo: AP

He said that the government needs to step up its efforts on intelligence gathering. He said the “terrorists” received training overseas from groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and gained combat experience in Syria.

“They are now definitely organised and these small organisations are very tight,” Pan said. “If it’s not possible to crack a small organisation, then I think this kind of thing will continue to happen.”

Chinese police blamed the ETIM for the Urumqi train station attack last month, state news agency Xinhua said on Sunday, the first time the separatists have been directly linked to the assault.

The ETIM has been accused by the United States and China of having ties to al-Qaeda, but there is disagreement among security experts over the nature of the group and whether ties with al-Qaeda and other militant organisations really exist.

No group has claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attack.

The top official in Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, has called for all forces to be mobilised to find the perpetrators, vowing to “crush the swollen arrogance of terrorists”, the Xinjiang government said on its official news website.