BEIJING (AP) — China's official news agency said that 109 ethnic Uighurs who Thailand deported to China amid international criticism that the refugees could face persecution had been on their way to Turkey, Syria or Iraq to help wage holy war.
On Thursday, Thai authorities sent back the Uighurs, who had been in Thailand for over a year and claimed to be Turkish, after determining they were Chinese. The repatriations were criticized by the U.N. refugee agency as "a flagrant violation of international law." Rights groups expressed fears that they could face torture. In Turkey's capital, Istanbul, protesters ransacked the Thai consulate to denounce the decision.
China's official Xinhua News Agency said late Saturday that the 109 illegal immigrants had been on their way "to join jihad," and that 13 of them had fled China after being implicated in terrorist activities. Another two had escaped detention, Xinhua said, citing the Ministry of Public Security.
Xinhua's report also claimed that a Chinese police investigation had uncovered several gangs recruiting people for jihad, and that Turkish diplomats in some Southeast Asian countries had facilitated the illegal movement of people.
The Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) are a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in China's far western region of Xinjiang. The group has complained of harsh cultural and religious suppression as well as economic marginalization under Chinese rule.
Beijing has accused Uighur separatists of terrorism in Xinjiang, where ethnic violence has left hundreds of people dead.
Many of the 109 had been radicalized by materials released by the World Uyghur Congress and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, Xinhua said. The former is a Munich-based Uighur rights group, and China has designated the latter a terrorist organization.
In response to the report, Dilxat Raxit, World Uyghur Congress spokesman, said Sunday: "China is defending itself and shirking responsibility for Uighurs fleeing because of its policy of suppression. The so-called radicals are those who hope to flee China and live a stable and dignified life in a safe and free country."
Meanwhile, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Saturday voiced China's "strong dissatisfaction with and opposition to" remarks by the U.S. State Department that it was deeply concerned about the protection of asylum-seekers in Thailand because of the case.