By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - The leaders of China and Turkey agreed on Wednesday to strengthen cooperation in fighting terror and people smuggling, a senior Chinese diplomat said, following friction between the two over Uighurs from China's Xinjiang who have fled to Turkey.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic minority that calls Xinjiang home, have left China in recent years, traveling to Turkey via Southeast Asia, having first illegally crossed the Chinese border.
Rights groups say such migrants are fleeing ethnic violence in far western Xinjiang and Chinese controls on their religion and culture.
Hundreds of people have died in unrest in Xinjiang in the last three years, blamed by Beijing on Islamist militants.
This month, Thailand deported 109 Uighurs to China, sparking anger in Turkey, home to a large Uighur diaspora, and feeding concern among rights groups and the United States that they could be mistreated upon their return.
"Security and law enforcement cooperation is an important area for the two countries and both have agreed to strengthen cooperation," Chinese deputy foreign minister Zhang Ming told reporters, after President Xi Jinping and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan met in Beijing.
Neither mentioned the issue in comments before reporters.
"We consistently advocate that China and Turkey should support each other on major issues and deepen our strategic cooperative relationship," Xi told Erdogan.
Zhang said Erdogan told Xi that Turkey regarded the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which Beijing says is waging a violent campaign for an independent Xinjiang, as a terror group.
"He said that ... Turkey will not allow anyone to use Turkey's territory to do anything to harm China's national interests and security," Zhang said.
China says ETIM recruits Uighurs who have gone to Turkey and trains them with extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, with the intent of returning to Xinjiang to wage holy war.
Many foreign experts have questioned whether ETIM exists as the coherent group China claims it is.
China has accused Turkish diplomats in Southeast Asia of providing documentation to Uighurs to ease travel to Turkey.
"China and Turkey both believe it is very important to strengthen international cooperation to fight against human trafficking," Zhang said, when asked about that issue.
Turkey has also been looking to China for its defense needs.
Turkey is open to an improved offer from preferred bidder China in a long-range missile defense system tender, Erdogan said ahead of his visit, reviving a deal that has raised security concerns among NATO allies.
Zhang declined to say whether the missile deal was discussed.
(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)