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Day After Bombing, Chinese City Very Tense


Men driving SUVs plowed into a crowded vegetable market in China yesterday and threw explosive devices out of their vehicles. At least 31 people were killed and more than 90 injured. The attack took place in Urumqi, which is the capital of China's northwest region. It has a heavy concentration of Muslims. It is the second major attack in that city in less than a month. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in Urumqi and is on the line with us right now. Good morning, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And the day after the bombing, what does it feel like there today?

LANGFITT: It feels very tense and I guess there's an example today - I was actually in that street market where this happened, where the attacks happened yesterday and there were people lighting candles and they were laying chrysanthemums by trees where some of the bombs had gone off and people had died. You could actually see dry blood, sort of burned dry blood by the sidewalks.

But there's also a huge police presence, riot police with shields, and it was really kind of remarkable. The riot police were actually taking the flowers from the trees and throwing them in dumpsters and some of the mourners were yelling at them and one grabbed them out of the hand of one of the riot police and said, you know, we're here to - they were saying things like we're here to remember those who died.

And I think the reason the riot police were doing this is this is an ethnic Han Chinese neighborhood. We don't know who were driving those vehicles yesterday, but the suspicion is they may have been Muslim Uighers here from Xinjiang and they were (unintelligible) people and so I think there's a real concern that there could be protests, crowds and further ethnic violence.

MONTAGNE: And Frank, you covered the aftermath of two or have or are in the midst of covering one of them, the aftermath of the biggest attacks in China in the last few months. One, earlier one, was a mass stabbing in Kunming in the country's southwest. Now this one in the Muslim heartland. How do the two attacks compare?

LANGFITT: Very different. You know, Kunming has no history of this kind of ethnic - not really this kind of ethnic tension that I was just talking about, so when you went to Kunming, you showed up at the hospital where people had been injured and I can remember actually nurses - this is remarkable for China 'cause it's a pretty closed society politically - there were nurses with (unintelligible) who were meeting the reporters and actually we were invited up to sort of talk to the survivors and freely interview them, which is very rare in China on something so sensitive as this. Here in Xinjiang, in Urumqi, they're much more concerned. When I went to the hospital today, I was met by riot police in body armor and they had clubs and they turned me away.

There has been some media access, but it seems the government is much more careful now about controlling the information and I think there's concern that as people tell these stories, more Han Chinese will get really, really angry, and they want to make sure that things don't get worse. To give you some example, there are a lot of people walking around the streets today fine, but right outside my hotel, and I've never seen this before, is an armored personnel carrier.

MONTAGNE: Hmm. But you have been able, I gather, to talk to some people. And what are they saying to you?

LANGFITT: Yeah, I have. A lot of people are being very quiet about this today. It's quite sensitive. But I did talk to one woman who has grown up here in Xinjiang. She sells shelving and she's quite well-to-do. She had a bunch of Bordeaux wine in her apartment. She's actually looking to get out. She's looking to buy a home in another province and move her business because she's concerned with all of the violence that's been going on here, particularly in recent years, that nobody's really willing to invest.

MONTAGNE: And what about the attackers? Do we know anything more about who they might be?

LANGFITT: We don't know. They haven't named them yet. The government has said, all they say so far is that they think that they were linked to terrorist organizations from outside of China and got some support. Now, no one has taken responsibility for this. The last attack here in Urumqi at a train station, a weaker separatist group put out a video. They said they were responsible. But there's a lot of question about these weaker separatist groups, how big they are, how many people they represent, whether they're just scattered.

So it's very - it's still unclear who was behind this.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, Frank, the Uighers, they have had grievances for a long time. Tells us a little about what they are.

LANGFITT: Well, I think one thing you would hear is there's a complaint over the years of what they would call forced assimilation. Young children have to take Mandarin at a younger age now, not necessarily their native tongue. Sometimes they're turned away from hotels in central and eastern China because they're distrusted. And the one thing they complain about here is an influx of Han Chinese into Xinjiang and they feel they're taking the jobs.

Now, in fairness, a lot of Han Chinese would say Uighers get a lot of advantages from the government and they see them often as kind of ungrateful.

MONTAGNE: Okay, Frank, thanks very much.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Frank Langfitt speaking to us from Urumqi, China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.