The Sept. 18 rampage took place at a coal mine in the far west Xinjiang region of China. Most of the victims were Han Chinese, and “wanted” posters displayed later suggested the attackers were ethnic Uighurs.
BAICHENG, China — Armed with only knives, the assailants struck at the coal mine in the dead of night, first killing the security guards and then setting upon the miners as they slept in their dormitory beds. Before the Sept. 18 rampage was over, more than 50 people were dead, at least five of them police officers, and dozens more had been wounded, according to victims’ relatives and residents.
Most of the victims were Han Chinese who had been lured to this desolate corner of the far west Xinjiang region by the prospect of steady work and decent pay.
The wanted posters displayed later in Baicheng suggest the attackers were ethnic Uighurs, all of whom apparently escaped into the foothills of the Tianshan Mountains, not far from China’s border with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
Even as Baicheng County remains in a state of siege, with an enormous manhunt under way, the Chinese news media have yet to report on the massacre, and local officials, when asked about it, have denied that it even took place.
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But the attack on the Sogan coal mine appears to be one of the deadliest acts of violence in Xinjiang in recent years, underscoring the challenges that Beijing faces as it tries to maintain order in a region nearly as large as Alaska.
Details of the massacre were first published last month by Radio Free Asia, a news service financed by the U.S. government and blocked by the Chinese government.
Government officials here have been trying to keep news of the killings from seeping beyond the coal mines and dusky towns that fleck rural Baicheng County.
Last week, the county seat was bristling with heavily armed police officers and was subject to a nighttime curfew. At main intersections, officers huddled behind sandbags; at Baicheng County Hospital, they guarded the rooms of the half-dozen injured mine workers yet to be discharged.
A middle school in nearby Tirek Township has been converted into a staging area, and residents say that a helicopter and drones have been flying over the deeply carved ravines that are thought to be sheltering the killers.
Despite the siege atmosphere, many Baicheng residents said they knew little about what had happened at the coal mine.
“We don’t know anything, and we feel safer if it stays that way,” the desk clerk of a local hotel said with a shrug and a smile.
Lingering across from her in the lobby was a group of special-forces officers. They had been called from other parts of China and another hotel clerk suggested that they had replaced local officers whose loyalties could not be entirely trusted.
“We have many Uighur police in Baicheng, and sometimes they might just cut people some slack if they are of the same ethnicity,” said the clerk, Xiong Zhaoxia, 27, a native of southwest Sichuan province who moved here as a child.
“Just think about it,” she added. “If I go back to my hometown, the people there will surely help me hide.”
Even if untrue, her sentiments speak volumes about the mistrust between the Han Chinese and the Uighurs. The two ethnic groups have little in common, and they often cannot speak the same language, especially in rural areas.
Although much of the violence in Xinjiang goes unreported by the Chinese news media, the authorities often find it hard to conceal clashes with large death tolls, or those that provoke serious civil unrest.
Those include a clash in the nearby city of Kashgar in June that left as many as 28 people dead, and a protest near Aksu last year that followed the fatal shooting of a Uighur teenager, who was reportedly gunned down after he failed to stop at a police checkpoint.
The government invariably blames Muslim religious extremists for the violence, though analysts outside China say many attacks have little to do with jihadist ideology.
“The triggers are often locally embedded, whether it be reprisal for a woman who’s been publicly unveiled, and her family shamed, or people striking back after a relative has been detained by police,” said James Leibold, a professor of Asian studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, who is an expert on Xinjiang.
Radio Free Asia, citing a government official in Baicheng, said the attackers might have been seeking vengeance for what the official described as a coercive campaign aimed at combating religious extremism. The official said the 17 suspects being sought were members of three Uighur families who had been singled out for flouting regulations that, among other prohibitions, bar women from veiling their faces.
Residents said they saw faces of several young women on wanted posters at Baicheng’s main market. The posters were later removed; it is not known why.