Military exercise in China’s Urumqi after market attack

URUMQI: China staged a huge military show of strength on Friday, after leaders vowed to smash the “terrorists” responsible for the deaths of 31 people in the Muslim Uighur homeland of Xinjiang.

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. Washington condemned the “horrific terrorist attack” 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. It was in a largely Han neighbourhood, but some of the traders and a few of the customers are Uighur. President Xi Jinping pledged to “severely punish violent terrorists”, and “crack down on them with a heavy fist”.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. The state-run Global Times reported Friday that five attackers died at the scene of Thursday’s attack, adding it was unclear whether they were included in the toll, and police were investigating whether more accomplices were at large.

The paper cited witnesses saying four vehicles were involved, and a witness also told AFP there were more than two, but authorities issued no confirmation. One local shopkeeper, who refused to be named, told AFP she saw desperate shoppers fleeing from the vehicles. “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 erected a knee-high barrier at times on Friday, but only one trader set up his stall on the street itself.

Flowers had been placed near trees along the road in memory of the victims. Shoppers and pedestrians who took photographs of patrolling paramilitary police were told to delete them. 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. The Chinese Communist party’s mouthpiece newspaper the People’s Daily said the campaign against terrorism was “a battle of good against evil”.

“There is not an inch of room for compromise or concession... We must continue to be vigilant against terror, maintain a high-pressure crackdown, and protect social stability,” it said. 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.

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.

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