GENEVA (Reuters) - China is believed to have returned nine young North Korean defectors to their homeland, where they face possible severe punishment or even execution, the United Nations said on Friday.
The U.N. human rights office as well as the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR voiced concern for the fate of the group, believed to all be orphans, who were first returned by Laotian police to China this week after crossing that border.
"We have received credible information that nine young North Korean defectors arrested in Laos have now been returned to North Korea via China," U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing in Geneva. He declined to reveal the source of the report, saying it needed special protection.
"We are extremely concerned for the protection of this group, which includes up to five minors, who are at risk of severe punishment and ill-treatment upon their return," he said.
UNHCR is seeking clarification from both China and Laos about the incident, spokesman Dan McNorton said.
"We remain greatly concerned about this group, especially as among this group there are five children," he said.
There was no immediate comment from Chinese authorities.
On Thursday, the independent U.N. human rights investigator on North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, voiced concern at their fate, saying no one should be forced to return to North Korea where, he said, "they may face persecution or severe punishment, including torture and the death penalty".
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Mark Heinrich)