Xi vows 'resolute measures' following blast at train station

URUMQI, China - Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged "resolute measures" following a suspected terror attack involving knives and explosives outside the largest railway station in Urumqi, capital of the restive Xinjiang region.

Mr Xi, who was wrapping up his security-focused four-day inspection tour to the region when the apparent suicide bombing happened, called the terrorists "audacious".

At least three people died and 79 were injured on Wednesday when assailants attacked people with knives and set off explosions. The number of assailants is unclear although Xinhua News Agency said two of them were killed after setting off explosives.

The third person was a bystander.

Xinhua said one of the suspects was Sedirdin Sawut, 39, from Aksu in southern Xinjiang. The duo had long been involved in religious extremism, it added.

In another Xinhua report yesterday, Mr Xi said the battle to combat violence and terrorism will not slacken, adding: "Decisive actions must be taken to resolutely suppress the terrorists' rampant momentum."

It comes two months after a bloody knife attack at a railway station in south-western Kunming city on March 1 that left 29 people dead, and after an incident last October when three people crashed a car near Tiananmen Square in what was described as a suicide attack.

Beijing blames the violence on separatists from Xinjiang's mainly Muslim Uighur minority.

While investigations are still ongoing, the timing of the attack sends a signal of "clear defiance" to Beijing, said experts.

"Since the Urumqi riots in 2009, there hasn't been a major violent incident in the city, so the timing of the attack, when Mr Xi was on tour in Xinjiang, is very significant," said terrorism expert Yang Shu of Lanzhou University. "The attackers want to demonstrate their power and capability in carrying out attacks."

Almost 200 people were killed in Urumqi in the July 2009 riots.

Wednesday's attack, targeting a transport hub and using knives, is also significant as it is similar to the one in Kunming and could suggest that the terrorists have latched on to a modus operandi.

It took place just when train stations across China were crowded with people travelling before a three-day public holiday began yesterday.

Singapore-based international terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna said more such attacks could be expected in the future. When terrorists launch an attack that is successful, they will carry out more of the same, he added.

Chinese cities are all at risk if Beijing does not step up preventive efforts like intelligence gathering and tackle Islamic extremism taking root in some parts of the country, experts said.

"The strategy is not to protect all railway stations. It is to collect intelligence to prevent the attacks," Prof Gunaratna said. "China must make efforts to build partnerships with other states."

This is one area that China can improve on, according to a 2013 terrorism report released yesterday by the United States.

Although China stressed the importance of global counter-terrorism cooperation, its law enforcement bodies were reluctant to conduct joint investigations with their US counterparts, the report noted. China was also reluctant to provide assistance in cases involving suspected terrorists, it said.

So while China might introduce tougher policies in Xinjiang in the short run, most experts believe it should focus on longer- term solutions like providing better job opportunities and encouraging ethnic integration.

Dr James Leibold, a senior lecturer in Chinese politics at La Trobe University in Australia, noted the increasing hold security and party apparatuses have in Xinjiang in recent years even as the region was opened up to more trade, migration and development.

"The two are potentially contradictory and might result in more inter-ethnic tensions, conflict and violence in the short term," he told The Straits Times.

Still, China has a long way to go in building up its anti-terrorism capabilities, said Prof Yang.

"Preventive measures cannot be done in three to five years," he noted. "But if issues such as the rise of Islamic extremism are not tackled, such attacks will continue and will only get worse."

This article was published on May 2 in The Straits Times.

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