BEIJING – An assailant hacked four people to death and injured eight others before being detained by authorities in an attack in China's restive Central Asian frontier, local residents and officials said Friday.
Few details were available on Thursday's attack in the oil industry hub of Korla in the western Xinjiang region, and the motive was not immediately clear. Some local residents described it as part of a gambling dispute, while online accounts characterized it as an attack by an ethnic Muslim Uighur against members of the country's Han Chinese majority.
The region is the site of a simmering rebellion by Uighurs against Chinese rule, and even if the attack was unrelated to the ethnic tensions, such incidents can often spiral into broader ethnic unrest. Authorities throughout China are especially sensitive about any potential unrest during the current session of the National People's Congress, taking place in Beijing to install a new generation of national leadership.
Regional spokeswoman Hou Hanmin said Friday that she could not confirm the ethnicity of the victims or the alleged assailant. Hou, who was in Beijing for the legislative session, said police were investigating to find out whether there were accomplices involved.
A man who works in Korla and is familiar with the case said the suspect started to hack at people after losing money at a gambling parlor. The man refused to reveal the attacker's ethnicity, saying it was a mere criminal act that had nothing to do with ethnicity. The man did not want to be named, citing the sensitivity of the case.
His account was backed up by Liang Zi, a local dessert seller, who said the city had returned to normal by Friday.
Uighurs have long complained that Chinese are displacing them in what they consider their homeland, and they chafe at controls on religion. Tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese periodically bubble over into violence. In 2009, riots in the regional capital, Urumqi, left nearly 200 people dead.