Assailants in two SUVs plowed through shoppers while setting off explosives at a busy street market in China's volatile northwestern region of Xinjiang on Thursday, killing 31 people and injuring more than 90, local officials said.
The attack in the city of Urumqi was the bloodiest in a series of violent incidents over recent months that Chinese authorities have blamed on radical separatists from the country's Muslim Uighur minority. The Xinjiang regional government said in a statement that the early morning attack was "a serious violent terrorist incident of a particularly vile nature."
The two vehicles crashed through barriers at 7:50 a.m. and drove right into the crowds while setting off explosives, the statement said.
The SUVs then crashed head-on and one of them exploded, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. It quoted an eyewitness as saying there were up to a dozen blasts in all.
"I heard four or five explosions. I was very scared. I saw three or four people lying on the ground," Fang Shaoying, the owner of a small supermarket near the scene of the attack, told The Associated Press by phone.
Photos from the scene posted to popular Chinese social media site Weibo showed at least three people lying in a street with a large fire in the distance giving off huge plumes of smoke. Others were sitting in the roadway in shock, with vegetables, boxes and stools strewn around them.
Hours afterward, armed paramilitary police and SWAT units patrolled streets surrounding the scene of the attack on Gongyuan North Street near central People's Park. News photographers and videographers were told not to take pictures and were forced to delete their images.
Paramilitary troops were deployed all along the street, a hub for grocery stores, restaurants and bars, many of which were closed.
However, traffic had resumed and there were no signs of the earlier explosion and fire. Chinese authorities usually attempt to tidy up such scenes and restore normality as quickly as possible.
It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the attack. Recent violence has been blamed on extremists seeking to overthrow Chinese rule in the region, which is home to the native Turkic-speaking Uighurs (pronounced WEE'-gurs) but has seen large inflows from China's ethnic Han majority in recent decades.
The death toll was the highest for violence in Xinjiang since days-long riots in Urumqi in 2009 between Uighurs and Hans left almost 200 people dead. Thursday's attack also was the bloodiest single act of violence in Xinjiang in recent history.
Urumqi was the scene of a bomb attack at a train station late last month that killed three people, including two attackers, and injured 79. Security in the city has been significantly tightened since that attack, which took place as Chinese President Xi Jinping was visiting the region.
In response to Thursday's attack, Xi pledged to "severely punish terrorists and spare no efforts in maintaining stability," Xinhua reported.