Soldiers with machine guns guarded the sidewalks and police yelled at residents who tried to leave their homes in China's restive Muslim territory Sunday, hours after officers battled bomb-tossing assailants in the second daring attack in a week in the region far from the Beijing Olympics.
The attackers were able to launch a series of pre-dawn bombings in this west-central part of the rugged Xinjiang region despite tightened security for the games. The violence — which police say killed 10 assailants and one security guard — also came just days after a militant Islamic group linked to al-Qaeda issued a new warning it would strike during the Olympics.
No group has claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack in Kuqa county, and police have not released any evidence that a terrorist organization was involved. But tensions in Xinjiang have been simmering for decades between the Muslim minority Uighur people and the Han Chinese who make up about 90 percent of the nation's population.
Many Uighurs yearn for independence for Xinjiang, a sprawling region rich in minerals and oil. Critics say the millions of Han Chinese who have settled here in recent years are gradually squeezing the Turkic people out of their homeland. But many Chinese believe the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gers) are backward and ungrateful for the economic development the Chinese have brought to the poor region, which borders eight Central Asian nations.
Bombings target Chinese
Sunday's series of bombings apparently targeted places dominated by Chinese, including a police station, government buildings, a bank and a shopping center in Kuqa — a base for oil and natural gas projects in the surrounding desert and mountains.
One blast blew the metal security door off the Three Eagle Shoe City mall. The attackers then tossed a bomb down the stairway leading to a basement shop, causing an explosion powerful enough to break off a large chunk of stone from the stairway. Several display cases had toppled over and the floor was littered with glass, broken light bulbs and shoes.
"I have no idea what their motive was," said the store's owner, a pudgy, middle-aged Chinese man with a crew cut.
"I opened this store about a year ago. Business has been OK. Now I don't know how I'm going to afford to fix it up," said the man, who declined to give his name because of the sensitivity of the attack.
A branch of the China Construction Bank next door was also hit. Its facade was covered with a large red, white and blue nylon tarp. A crowd of about 20 people — mostly Uighurs — gathered outside the bank, taking turns to peel back the tarp and look at the damage, which included a blown out window.
In a brief statement, police said officers killed eight of the attackers and two others blew themselves up. Two were arrested and three were at large, said the police, who declined to offer more information.
Pipes, caninsters and gas tanks used in bombs
A more detailed and dramatic account was provided by the state-run Xinhua News Agency, which said there were 12 bombings. The attackers used bent pipes, gas canisters and liquid gas tanks to make their explosive devices, Xinhua said.
In one of the most brazen attacks, the assailants drove a three-wheeled vehicle with explosives into the compound of the public security bureau at about 2:30 a.m., Xinhua reported. A blast followed, killing a security guard and injuring two police and two civilians, it said.
Six hours later, police hunted down five attackers who were hiding under a counter in a nearby market, Xinhua said. The men hurled bombs at the police, who fatally shot two of them, while the remaining three killed themselves with their own bombs, the news agency said.
Police declined to confirm the Xinhua account or comment on the discrepancies between it and the police statement.
One group that might be behind the attacks was the Turkestan Islamic Party, which issued the recent Olympics threat. The organization, which analysts believe is based in neighboring Pakistan, is fighting for Xinjiang independence.
Li Wei, a counterterrorism expert at a think tank with ties to the Chinese government, said the group's support has declined sharply in the past few years. It may be trying to boost its profile and influence by launching attacks during the games, said Li, of the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations.
But he added, "I don't think this incident could lead to the conclusion that their capabilities have increased, because even an extremely small number of people could draw enormous media attention."
Last Monday, two attackers killed 16 border police in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar, near the Pakistan-Afghan border. No one claim responsibility.
Martial law imposed
After Sunday's bombings, the authorities declared virtual martial law in Kuqa, about 1,740 miles (2,800 kilometers) west of Beijing with a population of 400,000. Downtown was closed, and roads leading to the area were blocked off during the morning and part of the afternoon. One man tried to step out of his shop, and a policeman quickly yelled at him, "Get back inside!"
Police in armored cars, SUVs and buses rumbled through the streets. The Kuqa Hotel — popular with tourists — was turned into a command center. Outside the hotel, about five soldiers were on their stomachs in sniper positions, aiming Kalashnikov assault rifles toward the road.
An Associated Press reporter and photographer were detained while they were reporting Sunday near the scene. Police took them to a hotel next to the bombed police station, and they were told not to leave until downtown reopened in the mid-afternoon.
Three European tourists who came to Kuqa to see one of its famous sites — rock-cut Buddhist caves and wall paintings — canceled their plans and made arrangements to leave on the next train.
One of the tourists said he was up late reading when he heard the attacks.
"I heard some bombs and then I heard some machine guns. The bombs sounded like thunder far away," said the tourist, who did not want his name or nationality mentioned for fear of the response from Chinese authorities.