Separatists 'wanted to show they can attack anywhere'

BEIJING - Kunming, more than 2,000km south of Beijing and clear across the country from Xinjiang, home of the ethnic minority Uighur group, is an unlikely target for separatist terrorists.

But last Saturday night, the capital city of south-western Yunnan province witnessed the most brutal terrorist attack in recent Chinese history when a group of about 10 knife-wielding assailants set upon unwary civilians, killing at least 29 people and injuring more than 140 others.

The Chinese authorities have blamed radical separatists for the bloody attack. Police said the attackers were dressed in black T-shirts emblazoned with the symbol of East Turkestan, the independent state that Xinjiang separatists want to set up.

So, what could have driven the group - four of whose members were shot dead - to travel more than 2,000km to slaughter innocent people in Yunnan, the land of the mystical Shangri-La?

Analysts say Kunming might have been chosen because it is a busy transportation hub in south- west China.

Home to at least 25 ethnic minority groups, Yunnan has about 100,000 Hui Chinese who, while ethnically different from the Uighurs, are also Muslims, they add.

The perpetrators want to show that they cannot be stopped.

"The message from the terrorists is that they can strike anywhere in China. Next week, it could be Guangdong, the week after, Shanghai," said Renmin University security expert Guo Taisheng.

The attack followed a pattern of targeting "soft" targets with a large number of civilians rather than outposts of Chinese state power, the analysts added.

Earlier this year, bombs went off in a vegetable market and hair salon in Xinhe, a county in Xinjiang.

Local police said a terrorist cell was behind the blasts.

"They are not targeting important infrastructure or official symbols, but want to create chaos and fear among the people," said Professor Guo.

Last October, a Xinjiang car carrying three people crashed and exploded near Beijing's Tiananmen Square, crowded with tourists.

China watchers highlighted the political symbolism: The car exploded in front of the Mao Zedong portrait hanging outside the entrance to the Forbidden City.

The timing of the Kunming attack is significant, say observers. It came two days before the high- profile annual meeting of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference kicked off on Monday in Beijing, followed by that of the National People's Congress, or China's Parliament, today.

"This sort of crazy, insane attack may stem from the rise of religious fundamentalism in Xinjiang, where there is some worship of the Taleban," said Renmin University political scientist Zhang Ming. "This is very troubling for the Chinese leadership."

Analysts say the terrorists' primitive tactics point to a growing desperation and willingness to resort to brutal means.

"It is hard to make bombs. And guns are very controlled in China," said Professor Yang Shu, director of the Central Asia Studies Institute of Lanzhou University.

At least two women joined last Saturday's attack. One was shot dead, and the other was the only terrorist captured by police.

Noting it was rare to see female terrorists in China, Prof Yang added: "This shows that the intensity and pull of their cause is rising."

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