Four on trial for 'China's 9-11' knife attack at Kunming train station

BEIJING (AFP) - With armed guards stationed inside the courtroom, four accused went on trial on Friday for a mass stabbing that killed 31 people in China, in an attack authorities blamed on separatists from largely Muslim Xinjiang.

The March 1 carnage at a train station in Kunming in south-western China, also saw more than 140 people wounded and was dubbed "China's 9-11" by state-run media.

The suspects, whose names appear to identify them as members of the Uighur minority, are accused of "leading a terrorist group" which planned and carried out the attack, Kunming's Intermediate Court said on a verified microblog account.

Four armed guards clad in dark clothing and holding automatic weapons were positioned inside the courtroom opposite the suspects, who had shaved heads and wore prison clothes, state broadcaster CCTV showed. One of the accused was a woman.

Each of them had a separate dock, with two police officers sitting behind.

State prosecutors said three of the suspects - whose names were transliterated as Iskandar Ehet, Turgun Tohtunyaz and Hasayn Muhammad by the official news agency Xinhua - were arrested while attempting to cross China's border, according to the court.

The other accused, named as Patigul Tohti, took part in the attack, along with at least four other assailants whom police shot dead at the scene, prosecutors added.

Authorities had previously given the toll as 29, but the change indicated that two of the wounded had later died of their injuries.

More than 300 members of the public were present in court, Xinhua said, including some victims and their relatives.

Beijing blamed the attack on "separatists" from the resource-rich far western region of Xinjiang, where at least 200 have died in attacks and clashes between locals and security forces over the last year.

Militants from Xinjiang were accused of organising an explosive attack in the regional capital Urumqi which killed 31 people in May, and a suicide car crash in Beijing's Tiananmen Square last year.

The Kunming mass knifing was the biggest-ever violent incident against civilians outside the region.

Death penalty

China's courts have a near-100 per cent conviction rate and the death penalty is regularly handed down in terrorism cases. China last month announced the executions of eight people for "terrorist attacks", including three it described as "masterminding" the car crash in Tiananmen Square. That came after 13 people were executed in June for attacks in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang, a resource-rich region which abuts Central Asia, is home to several ethnic minorities with strong cultural ties to neighbouring states such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Uighurs, who are mostly Muslim, are its largest ethnic group but many resent decades of immigration by China's Han majority. They say it has brought economic inequality and discrimination, as well as cultural repression such as a campaign to stop the Islamic practice of women covering their faces.

China counters that it plays a positive role and has brought about development and improvements to health and living standards. Beijing regularly accuses what it says are exiled Uighur separatist groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) as being behind terrorism.

But overseas experts doubt the strength of the groups and their links to global terrorism, with some arguing China exaggerates the threat to justify tough security measures in Xinjiang.