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China launches massive military manhunt for coal mine killers

An area double the size of Manhattan has been cordoned off as authorities pursue suspects following a coordinated knife attack that killed 60 workers at a northwestern Chinese coal mine, reports the FT.

The incident, first reported by Radio Free Asia, occurred on September 18 in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. After overtaking security guards, the attackers killed the workers while they were asleep in bunkhouses at the Sogan colliery in the city of Aksu. The attackers are alleged to be Uyghur separatists.

The nine suspects, are said to be hiding in  nearby mountains  where a massive military-led operation is now underway:

The helicopters and drones are operating out of the airport at Aksu, the largest city in the area. Police have established checkpoints on all roads leading to Baicheng, which covers an area of about 16,000 sq km. Heavily armed police are posted behind sandbag bunkers at each road block, providing cover for their colleagues who perform identification and weapons checks on all people entering the area.”

Most of the victims were Han Chinese migrant workers, but according to locals five police officers who responded to the attack were also killed. Aksu residents fear the death toll could be as high as 100.

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region suffers from discord due to ethnic fault lines. Uyghurs identify more closely with Central Asian nations.

The FT reports that Xinjiang “has long been a strategic priority for the Chinese government because of its natural resources, including the country’s largest coal reserves, and its proximity to even bigger energy sources in Central Asia.”:

“It is also a key component of President Xi Jinping’s “New Silk Road” strategy, aimed at enhancing Eurasian infrastructure links.”

The area was independent up to 1949 when it became part of China. China has been asserting is control over the area with more westward migration and a heavier military presence.