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China's official news agency is reporting that police have captured three suspects in connection with the weekend massacre at a train station in the country's southwest. The unprecedented attack, which involved long-bladed knives, left at least 29 dead and more than 130 injured. Officials are blaming it on Muslim separatists in China's far northwest, and state-controlled media are calling it China's 9-11. NPR's Frank Langfitt spoke with survivors in the southwestern city of Kunming.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Xia Fanchao arrived at the station here around 9 p.m. Saturday. He planned to catch a train towards the east coast, where he'd lined up a job installing elevators. As the skinny 18-year-old stood outside the entrance, he noticed something strange.
XIA FANCHAO: (Through translator) I saw a man carrying a bag, which he dropped on the floor of the square. Quite a few people rushed to the bag and unzipped it. Each took out a knife and then split up among the crowd and started to slash people.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
LANGFITT: Xia, who spoke from his hospital bed, said some of the knives were 20 inches long.
FANCHAO: (Through translator) They hacked away as though they were chopping firewood. They slashed people all around the square, and then circled back to where we were.
LANGFITT: One of the assailants came for Xia. He says she wore a long, black dress and a black veil.
FANCHAO: (Through translator) She ran towards me and lifted the knife and was about to slash me. I dodged it, and it cut my neck. It felt like I was being electrocuted.
LANGFITT: Xia, who still had dried blood caked around his neck, says the attackers - all dressed in black - never said a word. Chinese officials say they have evidence that the massacre was the work of Uighur separatists. The Uighurs are a Muslim Turkic people who hail from China's northwest region of Xinjiang. However, authorities have not described the evidence or identified any of the attackers. Uighur groups have denounced the massacre.
DRU GLADNEY: We've never seen anything quite like this.
LANGFITT: Dru Gladney is a professor of anthropology at Pomona College in California. He's studied Uighurs for three decades.
GLADNEY: This would mark an extreme escalation of the kinds of incidents we've seen in the past.
LANGFITT: Gladney says Uighurs have various complaints about Chinese rule, including lack of access to jobs and educational opportunities. But past attacks have generally focused on government offices or police stations - symbols of official power - in Xinjiang. Gladney says the slaughter of civilians in a city more than a thousand miles away - such as Kunming - is new.
GLADNEY: This may have been motivated by Islamic extremism, especially if they're dressed all in black, and especially if the woman was in a veil, a black veil. Uighur women rarely wear that. And that's another point: Uighurs, in general, have not been susceptible to jihadi or Islamist extremism, and this, again, is quite disturbing.
LANGFITT: Zheng Jianguo, a warehouse manager from eastern China, was at the railway station during the attack. He said he saw an assailant clad in black, and came to a similar conclusion.
ZHENG JIANGUO: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: It looked like something an Islamic person would wear. It looked like the outfit of a black widow, he says. Zheng is referring to Islamist female suicide bombers from Chechnya, who wore similar clothing. Ian He, an engineering student, spent part of last night donating at a mobile blood bank for victims. He wore a gray hoody, jeans and a baseball cap. There are many unanswered questions surrounding the massacre. So, I asked He a couple, including why Kunming might have been targeted.
IAN HE: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: They cannot fight face-to-face against armed forces, so they came to a remote city to carry out the attack, He said. As to why the attackers used knives instead of guns, He had some thoughts, as well.
HE: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: We feel guns are not that scary, he said. Their goal is to create chaos and terror. In fact, knives are more terrorizing. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Kunming, China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.