KUNMING, China – China says the vicious slashing spree that killed 29 people in a southern city was the work of separatists linked to international terrorism, but the assailants' homespun methods and low-tech weapons — nothing more than long knives — have led some analysts to suspect they didn't get outside help.
Officials have blamed secessionists from far-western Xinjiang for Saturday's attack at a train station in Kunming, more than 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) to the southeast. It is by far the deadliest attack blamed on Xinjiang militants to have taken place outside the region, and has been a wake-up call for Chinese that terrorism can strike anywhere.
Members of the Muslim Uighur (WEE-gur) ethnic group have waged a simmering rebellion against Chinese rule in Xinjiang, where clashes between Uighurs and members of China's Han majority are frequent. Many observers say the Turkic-speaking Uighurs are lashing out because they are being marginalized and feel their culture is being suppressed.
Beijing uses its claim of an international conspiracy to defend its crackdown on Uighur dissent, but there hasn't been substantial evidence to support ties to foreign Muslim extremists.
"Historically, Uighurs have had a difficult time getting traction and attention from the global jihadist movement," said Raffaello Pantucci, London-based senior research fellow at Royal United Services Institute. "We've had a number of videos in which senior members of al-Qaida have highlighted the cause and said this is a group to support and help, but in practical terms we have seen very little actually happen."
No group has claimed responsibility for Saturday's attack, carried out by at least eight black-clad assailants.
Although authorities have not explicitly mentioned the attackers' ethnicity, they have shown images of a black flag with a crescent moon said to have been found at the attack site. They cite the flags as evidence of involvement by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, which the government says has ties to overseas supporters of Uighur separatism. They also say the high number of victims — 143 people wounded in addition to the 29 killed — is evidence the attackers had training.
Sean Roberts of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, who has studied Uighurs in Central Asia and China, said the Kunming assailants' simple weaponry undermines the argument of any links to international terrorist groups, but said some Uighurs may be growing more militant.
"The ongoing development and further marginalization of the Uighurs, and particularly the suppression of Uighur dissent and constantly associating it with terrorism by the state, is likely to eventually lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy," Roberts said.
To China, even the attackers' clothes are a sign of foreign involvement.
"The attackers chose to dress in black, and black is the color of the holy war in international terrorist activities," Chinese anti-terrorism expert Li Wei said, reflecting the government view.
Authorities in Kunming fatally shot four attackers Saturday night and detained one suspect — a woman. Two days later, police captured three others and said the attack was the work of an eight-person gang led by a person identified as Abdurehim Kurban, according to state media. Authorities have released no other details about the suspects.
Kunming has had little history of ethnic unrest, and residents there expressed shock and outrage.
"Kunming is a tourist city in China, and I could never have imagined this to happen here," said Chen Bin, a 38-year-old security guard.
Although Beijing has long blamed the East Turkistan Islamic Movement for instigating violence in Xinjiang, many experts doubt it exists in any organized way. The U.S. added the group to its list of terrorist organizations in 2002, but later removed it.
Uighur radicals are believed to be among the international jihadis sheltering in lawless northern Pakistan, but it is unclear if they have any connection to attacks in China.
Pantucci said that if the latest attack is connected to Xinjiang separatists, it would fit into an escalation of violence in the region over the last year, including several slashing attacks. He said both the Kunming attack and those in Xinjiang have lacked sophistication but could have been motivated by terrorist literature and videos.
"Even in some of the recent incidents that we have seen out in Xinjiang where they have tried to create explosive devices, we are talking very rudimentary devices that are essentially petrol bombs, gas canisters which they light up. This is not something that requires much external training or preparation," Pantucci said.
Pantucci said he would not be surprised by attempts to strike other Chinese cities, but "whether they would be as successful as they were this time is not clear because security will be ramped up quite substantially in the wake of this."
Li, the Chinese anti-terror expert, said the attackers probably chose Kunming based on their ability to strike, and to capitalize on "mobility, randomness and suddenness."
"It might be an even smaller city next time. That's the characteristic of terrorist activities," said Li, of the Beijing-based China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.
Alarm over militant attacks beyond Xinjiang was first raised in October when a suicide car attack blamed on three ethnic Uighurs killed five people, including the attackers, at Beijing's Tiananmen Gate. The latest attack came at a sensitive time, days ahead of Wednesday's opening of the ceremonial National People's Congress.
The Chinese government has vowed to crack down on the perpetrators. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the Kunming attackers are the "common enemy of the entire human race."
Authorities on Sunday rounded up and questioned members of Kunming's Uighur community, which is believed to number only 40 to 60.
At a barbeque stand of sizzling lamb skewers in the Uighur neighborhood, 19-year-old Aike Ainivan complained of discrimination. "They call us Uighur dogs, and say we are either pickpockets or drug dealers," he said.
He also condemned the train station attackers: "I hate them. They have brought harm to us."
Reporter Louise Watt and researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.