A group of 22 Uighurs who fled after ethnic rioting in western China are seeking asylum in Cambodia after using an underground network of missionaries in China that has helped North Korean refugees in the past.
It is the first time the Christian interfaith network has helped a group of the largely Muslim Uighurs, and it might not be the last. People who work with the network say overseas-based Uighur groups have been asking if they could use the underground "railway" through China to reach the U.N. refugee office in Cambodia.
Tension in China's remote northwest has increased since the July rioting between the Turkic Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese. It was China's worst ethnic violence in decades.
The Chinese government says the rioting left nearly 200 people dead. A Chinese court sentenced five Uighurs to death Thursday for murder and other crimes during the rioting, and China announced last month that nine Uighurs had been executed for taking part in the violence.
Overseas Uighur groups reject China's accusations that they helped cause the violence in the long-tense region and say Uighurs have been rounded up in mass detentions since the riots.
The 22 Uighurs, who have been described by Uighur exile groups as witnesses to the rioting, made their way through China and Vietnam before arriving in the Cambodian capital, where they have made contact with the UN refugee office and applied for political asylum.
However, they live in fear of being picked up and returned to China, which has close ties with Cambodia, according to Uighur groups.
"China has a very big influence in Cambodia. So their life is in risk, I would say," said Ilshat Hassan, the U.S.-based director of interior affairs for the World Uyghur Congress.
A spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry asked that questions about the case be sent in a fax, and offered no immediate response.
Hassan said the group is the first large one to leave China after the riots. He said they witnessed the violence in the Xinjiang region and took photos. Two other Uighurs were arrested in Vietnam, he said, and he lost contact with another group of four.
A spokesman for Cambodia's Ministry of the Interior, Pol. Lt. Gen. Khieu Sopheak, said Friday that at least 16 Uighurs are now staying at the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the capital, Phnom Penh.
He said the Cambodian government can do nothing with the Uighurs as they are under the UNHCR's protection. He said he doesn't know when and how they arrived in Cambodia, or whether the government will deport them to China.
"It is too early to talk about this," the general said.
UNHCR's spokeswoman for Asia, Kitty McKinsey, said she could not discuss the case. "It's our policy everywhere in the world never to speak about individual asylum seekers or refugees," she said. The Phnom Penh office is the closest UNHCR office to China in Southeast Asia.
Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said the government will consider carefully any repatriation request from China. He said Cambodia has the right to deny such a request if the people are considered political asylum seekers.
"But if they are purely criminal people and there is a request, we may deport them back," he said.
Missionary groups have been getting more and more requests from overseas Uighur groups hoping to use the North Korean "railway," the Rev. Marcus Ramsey with the Macau Interfaith Network told AP Television News.
The "railway" is a network of sympathetic locals who agree to shelter and guide people as they cross China.
Ramsey's group collaborates with other missionary groups and helped the 22 Uighurs leave China.
The requests come because some Uighurs fear the Chinese government is targeting them after the July rioting, he added.
Hassan did not want to talk about any involvement with the missionary network, saying only "some locals from the China side helped."
Now, however, China has tightened border controls and the way into Vietnam is no longer possible, he said.
Associated Press Writer Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contributed to this report.