KUNMING, China – More than 10 assailants slashed scores of people with knives at a train station in southern China in what state media said Sunday was a terrorist assault by ethnic separatists from the far west. Twenty-nine slash victims and four attackers were killed and 143 people wounded.
Police fatally shot four of the assailants, captured one and were searching for the others following the attack late Saturday at the Kunming train station in Yunnan province, the official Xinhua News Agency said. State broadcaster CCTV said two of the attackers were women — one of the slain and the one who was captured and later brought to a hospital for treatment.
Witnesses described assailants dressed in black storming the train station and slashing people indiscriminately with large knives and machetes.
Student Qiao Yunao, 16, was waiting to catch a train at the station when people starting crying out and running, and then saw a man cut another man's neck, drawing blood.
"I was freaking out, and ran to a fast food store, and many people were running in there to take refuge," she told The Associated Press via Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblog. "I saw two attackers, both men, one with a watermelon knife and the other with a fruit knife. They were running and chopping whoever they could."
The attackers' identities have not been confirmed, but evidence at the scene showed that it was "a terrorist attack carried out by Xinjiang separatist forces," Xinhua quoted the municipal government as saying.
Xinhua said that in addition to the four attackers killed, 29 civilians were confirmed dead and 143 wounded.
The far western region of Xinjiang is home to a simmering rebellion against Chinese rule by some members of the Muslim Uighur (pronounced WEE'-gur) population, and the government has responded with heavy-handed security.
Most attacks blamed on Uighur separatists take place in Xinjiang, where clashes between ethnic Uighurs and members of China's ethnic Han majority are frequent, but Saturday's assault happened more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) to the southeast in Yunnan, which has not had a history of such unrest.
However, a suicide car attack blamed on three ethnic Uighurs that killed five people including the attackers at Be last November raised alarms that militants could be changing tactics and aiming to strike at soft targets elsewhere in China.
Sean Roberts, a cultural anthropologist at George Washington University who has studied Uighurs and China for two decades, said the Kunming violence would be a new kind of attack for ethnic Uighurs — premeditated and outside Xinjiang — but still rudimentary in weaponry.
"If it is true that it was carried out by Uighurs, it's much different than anything we've seen to date," Roberts said in a telephone interview.
But he added that it was still unclear if there is any organized Uighur militant group and that attacks so far do not appear linked to any "global terrorist network because we're not seeing things like sophisticated explosives or essentially sophisticated tactics."
In an indication of how seriously authorities viewed the attack — one of China's deadliest in recent years — the country's top police official, Politburo member Meng Jianzhu, arrived in Kunming on Sunday and went straight to the hospital to visit the wounded, Xinhua reported.
The violence in Kunming came at a sensitive time as political leaders in Beijing prepared for Wednesday's opening of the annual legislature where the government of President Xi Jinping will deliver its first one-year work report.
Xi called for "all-out efforts" to bring the culprits to justice. In a statement, the Security Management Bureau under the Ministry of Public Security said that police will "crack down the crimes in accordance with the law without any tolerance."
Willy Lam, a political observer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the attack coming so close to the annual National People's Congress dented Xi's message of a "Chinese Dream" coalescing under his rule.
"Pockets of dissatisfaction, groups of people with grievances, appear to be increasing. After 1 1/2 years of more heavy-handed control (in Xinjiang), the report card does not look good," Lam said.
The attack was the deadliest violence attributed to Uighur-Han conflicts since riots in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi in 2009, in which Uighurs stormed the streets of the city, targeting Han people in seemingly random violence that included killing women and children. A few days later Han vigilante mobs armed with sticks and bats attacked Uighurs in the same city. Nearly 200 people died.
Associated Press reporters Ian Mader, Gillian Wong and Louise Watt and video producer Aritz Parra in Beijing, and researcher Fu Ting in Shanghai, contributed to this report.