BEIJING: Attackers killed at least 31 people Thursday when they ploughed two vehicles into a market and threw explosives in the capital of China´s Xinjiang region, in what authorities called the latest “severe terrorist incident” to hit the Muslim Uighur homeland.
More than 90 people were also wounded when two off-road vehicles drove into a crowd in Urumqi, with one of them exploding, the regional government´s Tianshan web portal said, in an attack with echoes of a fiery car crash in Tiananmen Square last year.
Pictures posted on Sina Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter, showed victims lying in a tree-lined street, as others sat on flimsy stools.
Flames rose in the background, while other images showed smoke billowing over market stalls behind a police roadblock. None of the photographs could immediately be verified.
Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to “severely punish terrorists and spare no efforts in maintaining stability”, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Xinjiang, a vast and resource-rich region in China´s far west, has seen periodic violence which has increased and sometimes spread beyond it in recent months.
Beijing says it faces terrorism from a violent separatist movement there, driven by religious extremism and foreign groups, while critics point to economic inequality and cultural and religious repression of Uighurs as causes of unrest.
Tianshan described the attack as a “severe, violent terrorist incident”.
“Thugs broke through protective metal barrier by driving two vehicles, colliding with the crowd and detonating explosive devices, causing the deaths of 31 people and injuring 94,” it said.
A witness at the market told Xinhua he heard a dozen “big bangs” during the attack, which happened at about 7:50am (2350 GMT Wednesday), when Chinese morning markets, which usually sell fresh groceries, are commonly crowded with shoppers.
“There were multiple strong explosions in the morning market at the Cultural Palace in Urumqi,” wrote one Weibo poster who said he was less than 100 metres (yards) from the scene.
“I saw flames and heavy smoke as vehicles and goods were on fire while vendors escaped leaving their goods behind.”