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Mourners In China Hold Vigils For Urumqi Victims


Chinese authorities are vowing a yearlong crackdown on terrorism in the country's far northwest following yesterday's attack that killed 31 people. The attackers drove SUVs through a market in Urumqi, the capital of China's Xinjiang region. They crashed into pedestrians and threw explosive devices before blowing themselves up. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in Urumqi and has just returned from a tense candlelight vigil. And, Frank, begin by describing the scene.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah, actually, Audie, I've been to a few candlelight vigils, I guess, but never anything quite like this. There was tremendous contrast. I mean, it was very mournful, people were lighting candles. There was a barbershop I saw that was playing this very - sort of very somber tune from a popular hong Kong cop movie. Let's take a listen.


LANGFITT: Then the really strange part about it, it was highly militarized. You had a lot of police out there who were worried about protests 'cause they had been watching social media, I guess and they were out in force. You had riot police actually, who's using shields to block people from lighting candles, pushing back the crowd. So it was a really incongruous scene.

CORNISH: Frank, give us some context here. What were police exactly afraid of?

LANGFITT: Well, potentially, there's a big ethnic element to this attack. The government hasn't said who is behind it, but this happened in an ethnic Han Chinese neighborhood. Most of China are ethnic Han people and the suspicions are that may be Uighurs were behind the attack. They're very different. Their Muslim Turkic people, Xinjiang is their homeland. And quite a few, I would say, Uighurs are resentful of influx Han here to Xinjiang, taking jobs from them, they say.

They also feel like their language and religion is under a lot of pressure. They complain about forced assimilation. Of the last three months, we've had two big other terrorist attacks here, one here in Urumqi, one in southwest China. The government has blamed Uighur separatists for that.

Now there is also a history of bad relations here, particularly in Urumqi. In 2009, there were huge riots here between Han Chinese and Uighurs that left about 200 people dead. And so the cops were clearly determined to make sure that didn't happen again.

CORNISH: Now, how did mourner respondent to such a heavy police presence?

LANGFITT: They didn't like it at all. Early in the day, I actually saw cops throwing flowers in dumpsters. And cops tonight told people not to take cellphone pics of the candles. They tried to stop people telling stories about the attack. One cop actually told me to stop recording that music that you just heard and told me not to interview anybody. And afterward, a guy in the shop, he was like really mad at the cop and said, you know, this isn't North Korea, people should know what happened and the government shouldn't be trying to hide it.

CORNISH: So given what you told us, and despite the fact that there were more than 90 injured in this attack, you weren't able to hear any of their stories.

LANGFITT: Not directly, 'cause, I tried to get into some hospitals and I was block by riot police entering one hospital. But I did talk to a guy named Robert Wong today. His dad was going to buy vegetables in the morning and he ended up getting hit with glass from one of the explosives. And actually, he's a tough guy in his 70s, went home, cooked breakfast. It was only after he was cooking breakfast that his son even noticed that he was bleeding from his legs and head, and now he's in the hospital.

I talked to Robert and he grew up here in Xinjiang and had really good - he's Han Chinese - had great relations with Uighurs. He thinks most are still good people, but he's scared and wary now and he's no longer - he said he's no longer willing to have close relationships with Uighurs anymore.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in Urumqi, China. Frank, thank you.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.