By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Yesim Dikmen
BANGKOK/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Thailand's prime minister defended a decision to forcibly return nearly 100 Uighur Muslim migrants to China despite rights groups concerns they could face ill-treatment upon their return, saying if they encountered any problems it was not Bangkok's fault.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha also held out the possibility of shutting the Thai embassy in Turkey after protesters attacked the honorary consulate in Istanbul, smashing windows and ransacking parts of the building, over the expulsion of the Uighurs back to China.
China's treatment of its Turkic language-speaking Uighur minority is a sensitive issue in Turkey and has strained bilateral ties ahead of a planned visit to Beijing this month by President Tayyip Erdogan. Many Turks see themselves as sharing a common cultural and religious heritage with their Uighur "brothers" and Turkey is home to a large Uighur diaspora.
"I ask that we look after the safety of the embassy staff first," Prayuth told reporters. "But if the situation gets worse then we might temporarily have to close the embassy in Turkey."
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uighurs keen to escape the unrest have traveled clandestinely via Southeast Asia to Turkey. China is home to about 20 million Muslims spread across its vast territory, only a portion of whom are Uighurs.
"Thailand sent around 100 Uighurs back to China yesterday. Thailand has worked with China and Turkey to solve the Uighur Muslim problem. We have sent them back to China after verifying their nationality," Colonel Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, deputy government spokesman, told reporters on Thursday.
A group of more than 170 Uighurs were identified as Turkish citizens and sent to Turkey, and nearly 100 were identified as Chinese and sent back to China. Fifty others still need to have their citizenship verified.
"If we send them (the Uighurs) back and there is a problem that is not our fault," said Prayuth, the general who led a coup against an elected government last May.
Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China's foreign ministry, would not confirm whether the Uighurs had been deported to China but spoke in general terms about the issue at a daily news briefing in Beijing on Thursday, saying the Uighurs were "firstly Chinese".
Beijing denies restricting the Uighurs' religious freedoms and blames Islamist militants for a rise in violent attacks in its western Xinjiang region in the past three years in which hundreds have died.
ANGER IN TURKEY
The Istanbul protesters, using wooden planks and stones, smashed windows and broke into the Thai consulate late on Wednesday, throwing folders and personal belongings on the floor, pictures and video footage published by local media showed.
It was the latest in a series of attacks in Istanbul in recent days, mostly by a youth group linked to the national opposition MHP, in protest at Chinese treatment of Uighurs.
A Chinese restaurant, its owner Turkish and its cook ironically Uighur, was vandalized last week, while a group of Korean tourists was mistakenly attacked in Istanbul's historic Sultanahmet district, according to the Hurriyet newspaper.
Turkey has vowed to keep its doors open to Uighur migrants fleeing persecution in China, exacerbating a row with Beijing. Around 170 Uighur women and children arrived in Istanbul last week from Thailand, where they had been held for more than a year for illegal entry.
"It is very shocking and disturbing that Thailand caved in to pressure from Beijing," Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters. "In China they can face serious abuses including torture and disappearance."
The UN refugee agency said it was alarmed by Thailand's decision to deport the Uighurs. "We are shocked by this deportation of some 100 people and consider it a flagrant violation of international law," said Volker Turk, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection.
Rights groups have long criticized Thailand for its treatment of migrants from Myanmar, including Rohingya Muslims, a mostly stateless group from western Myanmar. Thousands arrive every year in predominantly Buddhist Thailand, brought by smugglers.
(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Pracha Hariraksapitak in BANGKOK and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)