The attackers, four of whom were killed by armed police, launched the horrific attack at Kunming railway station in Yunnan province at around 9pm local time yesterday.
Distressing photos circulating online showed bodies, pools of blood and abandoned luggage scattered across the terminal floor in the wake of what authorities termed an ‘organised, premeditated, violent terrorist attack’.
It is believed that more than 10 people took part in the attack. As well as the four who were shot yesterday, one was taken alive. The rest are still being hunted.
According to CCTV, the Chinese state broadcaster, at least two of the attackers were female. One was killed by police and the other was the woman who was captured. She has been taken to hospital for treatment.
The death toll stands at 29 bystanders and four attackers who were shot dead by police.
Witnesses described assailants dressed in black charging through station, slashing indiscriminately with large knives and machetes.
Student Qiao Yunao, 16, was at the station and witnessed the carnage.
She said: ‘I was freaking out, and ran to a fast food store, and many people were running in there to take refuge.’
‘I saw two attackers, both men, one with a watermelon knife and the other with a fruit knife. They were running and chopping whoever they could.’
Today armed police were patrolling the railway station afternoon, which was open for business again.
Cleaners had begun disinfecting and cleaning the area while floral tributes were laid by passers by.
One, who laid a bunch of yellow lilies and gave her name only as Guo, said: ‘This is to express our condolences for the victims and to show we have no fear in the face of violence.’
The Chinese authorities have blamed the attack on militants from the remote far western region of Xinjiang, which is home to tensions between the government and Muslim separatists.
The state news agency Xinhua, quoting local government sources, said: ‘Evidence at the crime scene showed that the Kunming Railway Station terrorist attack was carried out by Xinjiang separatist forces.’
The Xinjiang region borders Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and the Chinese government has blamed several attacks on militants there.
The region is home to a large Muslim Uighur minority who are angry at the treatment of their beliefs by the authorities.
Most attacks blamed on Uighur separatists have taken place in Xinjiang itself, but the train station was more than 620 miles away.
This is the first time Uighurs have been blamed for an attack so large and far from their home. A suicide attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in October was also blamed on the group by authorities.
China denies suggestions by exiles and human rights groups that the unrest is driven more by unhappiness at government policies than by any serious threat from extremist groups, who want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan.
Police shot dead four of the unidentified attackers and were searching for around five others, according to state media.
Several suspects were contained by police and the station and surrounding roads were cordoned off.
Medics were still treating people and taking them to hospital hours after the attack, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency, which provided the number of people killed and injured.
An earlier estimate of 162 injuries which was reported by state media was reduced.
The death toll makes the attack one of the deadliest in recent Chinese history.
Xinhua said a group of men was involved but did not provide more details and the attackers were not identified. Kunming city police did not have immediate information to release.
Resident Yang Haifei told Xinhua he was buying a ticket in the station when he saw a group of people rush into the station, many of them dressed in black, and start attacking people.
‘I saw a person come straight at me with a long knife and I ran away with everyone,’ he told the news agency, adding some people ‘just fell on the ground’.
Another crying victim outside the station told the news agency: ‘I can’t find my husband, and his phone went unanswered.’
Local TV station K6 said several of the attackers were shot by police and that victims were being transported to local hospitals.
The men were wearing uniforms when they stormed the railway station and gunshots were heard after police responded, another state news organisation said.
Domestic security chief Meng Jianzhu, one of China’s top politicians, was reportedly travelling tonight to the scene in downtown Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan province which has more than six million citizens.
The station is one of the largest in south west China and opened in 1958, with up to 75,000 passengers a day passing through it.
Many posts describing the attack on the Chinese Twitter-like micro-blogging site Weibo, where photos of the carnage were first posted, were reportedly deleted by government censors.
Reuters reported the quickest posts to be scrubbed were those that described the attackers, two of whom were identified by some as women.
Others condemned the attack.
One user wrote: ‘No matter who, for whatever reason, or of what race, chose somewhere so crowded as a train station, and made innocent people their target – they are evil and they should go to hell.’
A woman staying at a hotel near the station told the South China Morning Post she was terrified to leave.
‘Our guests who walked passed the train station told us not to leave the hotel because the situation is dangerous,’ she said.
‘We dare not leave the hotel right now. There are many police outside. We just fear that not all the attackers have been caught.’
However, China has seen a number of mass stabbings and other attacks carried out by people bearing grudges against society.
In June last year at least 27 people were killed after gangs armed with knives attacked a police station and a local government building in a remote region of western China.
Mobs in the Xinjiang region, home to a large Muslim Uighur minority, were said to have set upon buildings in the township of Lukqun at around 6am, stabbing people and setting fire to police cars.
The attack comes at a particularly sensitive time as China gears up for the annual meeting of parliament, which opens in Beijing on Wednesday and is normally accompanied by a tightening of security across the country.
China has blamed similar incidents on Islamist extremists operating in the restive far western region of Xinjiang, though such attacks have generally been limited to Xinjiang itself.
There is unrest among many Uighurs at restrictions laid down by the Chinese authorities on their culture and religion.
Hu Xijin, the editor of the influential Global Times newspaper, said it was important not to allow a ‘vacuum’ in which groups could be unfairly blamed for the train station attack.
‘If it was Xinjiang seperatists, it needs to be announced promptly, as hearsay should not be allowed to fill the vacuum,’ he wrote.
The Global Times is published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily.
The Security Management Bureau under the Ministry of Public Security called the incident a ‘severe violent crime’.
‘No matter what motives the murderers hold, the killing of innocent people is against kindness and justice,’ it said.
‘The police will crack down the crimes in accordance with the law without any tolerance. May the dead rest in peace’.