by Neil Connor
URUMQI, May 23, 2014 (AFP) – China staged a huge show of force in the Muslim Uighur homeland of Xinjiang Friday and vowed a one-year campaign against “terrorist violence” as the death toll from a bloody market attack rose to 39.
At least 1,000 personnel in military and police vehicles took to the streets in Urumqi, the capital of the volatile region, where authorities said assailants in two vehicles ploughed into shoppers and traders and threw explosives at a street market Thursday.
The attack took place in a largely Han Chinese neighbourhood, but some of the traders and a few of the customers are Uighur.
State-controlled Xinhua news agency said late Friday that the death toll had increased to 39, upping the previous figure of 31 given a few hours after the attack.
President Xi Jinping pledged to “severely punish violent terrorists”, and “crack down on them with a heavy fist”.
Meanwhile, Xinhua said late Friday Xinjiang had launched a one-year campaign against terrorists and religious extremist groups, and would target “gun and explosive manufacturing dens and terrorist training camps.”
“Terrorists and extremists will be hunted down and punished,” as part of the campaign, the report said, citing local authorities.
“The government will prevent terrorism and extremism from spreading to other regions,” it added.
China has seen a series of incidents in recent months targeting civilians, sometimes far from Xinjiang itself, which authorities have blamed on “separatists” from the vast and resource-rich region.
Xinhua’s dispatch said more than half the region’s population was made up of ethnic minorities who hold Muslim beliefs, and blamed “violence in the name of Jihad” for destabilising the region.
Friday’s military drill followed a similar exercise that was held in Urumqi last June after dual clashes branded as “terrorism” by Beijing killed at least 35 people in Xinjiang.
Many of the soldiers being transported through the city were shouting slogans, while other military personnel on armed vehicles were standing behind their weapons.
The police vehicles sounded their sirens as thousands of onlookers lined the streets taking photographs.
“They do this to make us feel safe,” a bystander called Huang Jing told AFP.
“It is obviously (staged) because of what happened at the market,” she added.
Five suspects were named by Xinhua late on Friday, four who died at the scene and one who was detained in Bayingolin, which is south of Urumqi.
“In order to carry out terrorist activities, they bought materials for producing explosives as well as vehicles,” Xinhua said.
- ‘Good against evil’ -
One local shopkeeper, who refused to be named, told AFP she saw desperate shoppers fleeing from the vehicles involved in the attack.
“They ran onto the pavement, but many couldn’t get away,” she said.
“The terrorists were trying to kill as many as they could, and they came here because they knew it would be crowded.”
Police sealed the street to traffic at times Friday and heavily patrolled the area. Flowers had been placed near trees along the road in memory of the victims.
The Chinese Communist party’s mouthpiece newspaper the People’s Daily said the campaign against terrorism was “a battle of good against evil”.
Washington condemned the “horrific terrorist attack” on Thursday and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said there was “no justification for the killing of civilians”.
Beijing described it as the latest “severe terrorist incident” to hit the far western region, home to China’s mainly Muslim Uighur minority.
The US embassy in Beijing barred staff from personal travel to Xinjiang and warned US citizens that “violent attacks, including acts of terrorism” pose a random threat to foreigners in China.
Security was tight at the Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital where many of the more than 90 wounded were being cared for, with an armoured vehicle parked outside, surrounded by six paramilitary police holding rifles with fixed bayonets.
- Decades of discrimination -
Critics of Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang say that tensions in the region are driven by cultural oppression, intrusive security measures and immigration by majority Han Chinese which have led to decades of discrimination and economic inequality.
At Friday afternoon prayers at the Yanghang Mosque in Urumqi’s Uighur district, a worshipper told AFP that he did not feel there was antagonism between the Uighur and Han communities.
“I don’t know anyone who would support this kind of acts. We don’t experience conflict with other people in our everyday lives,” said the man, who did not give his name.
Graphic images obtained by AFP showed scores of bodies lying in the road after Thursday’s carnage, amid pools of blood, scattered fruit and the twisted wreckage of a bicycle.
Some of the shoppers returning to the area on Friday said doing so was an act of defiance.
One elderly woman clutching a bag of spring onions told AFP: “Just because people come here and try to terrorise us, it does not mean I should have food which is not fresh.”
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