At least 31 people were killed and close to a hundred injured in the biggest ever terror attack on Chinese soil in recent memory, as an explosive-laden truck ploughed through a market in the provincial capital of China’s far-western Xinjiang region early on Thursday morning.

The bomb blasts shattered a crowded open vegetable market right in the heart of downtown Urumqi, a city that is usually under tight security as the capital of the Muslim-majority “autonomous region” that has seen intermittent ethnic riots and attacks. The blasts took place at 7.50 a.m. local time (4.20 a.m. IST).

The attack appeared to be a carefully planned assault by a group that intended to inflict as much damage as possible: witnesses described how two unmarked vehicles ploughed into shoppers — most of them elderly Chinese residents on their daily visit to a morning market — as attackers hurled bombs. The two Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) appeared to be laden with explosives, blowing up as they drove into stalls.

As of Thursday evening, at least 31 people were reported dead and 94 others injured, authorities told the official Xinhua news agency.

“Four senior citizens were run over and killed in front of me,” a vendor told Xinhua.

Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to “severely punish the terrorists” and called on police to “step up patrols and security control over possible terrorist targets and prevent ripple effects”, Xinhua reported.

The attack was the latest — and the most brazen — of a string of recent incidents linked to extremist Islamist groups in Xinjiang. Earlier this month, at least three people were killed and 79 others injured as armed assailants stabbed people at Urumqi’s railway station. A similar attack left at least 29 people killed in Kunming, in south-western Yunnan province, in March.

Thursday’s blast prompted authorities to step up security in railway stations and airports. Two flights on Thursday bound for Urumqi from Shanghai, operated by Juneyao Airlines, were diverted mid-flight to the Nanjing airport “for a security check”, authorities said, leading to suggestions that there was possible intelligence of another terror threat on Thursday.

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