China has accused Turkish diplomats of providing fake passports to members of the Muslim Uighur minority attempting to flee overseas, saying they go on to become “cannon fodder” for jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq.
The accusations follow the forced repatriation to China of Uighurs from jungle camps in Thailand last week, which triggered violent protests in Turkey.
Thailand returned 109 Uighurs out of about 400 who were discovered last year in people smuggling camps in its southern jungles, in their attempt to flee China for refuge in Turkey. The week before, Turkey agreed to take 173 of the Uighurs, many of them women and small children.
Turkey had been in protracted negotiations over the fate of the refugees, who claimed to be Turkish when first discovered. Turkey’s foreign ministry called the Thai government decision to send them back to China “deplorable” and “in contravention of international humanitarian law”.
Chinese treatment of the Uighurs, most of whom follow a moderate branch of Sufi Islam, is increasingly becoming a sore point with Muslims overseas — particularly in Turkey, where nationalists embrace a Pan-Turkic identity spanning much of Central Asia. The Uighur language is closely related to Turkish.
Native to resource-rich Xinjiang, many Uighurs feel discriminated against in education and employment in China, while some also chafe under restrictions on Muslim religious practice.
China maintains that Uighurs seeking to leave the country are trying to join extremist groups overseas, pointing to a brutal knife attack at a Chinese railway station last year by a group of Uighurs who had been prevented from crossing the border into Vietnam.
Tong Bishan, division chief of the Ministry of Public Security’s Criminal Investigation Department, accused diplomats in the Turkish embassy in Kuala Lumpur of providing documentation to Uighurs. He made the statement at a weekend press conference to which only a few foreign media were invited.
Several months back Chinese authorities detained a number of people in Shanghai on charges they were providing Turkish documentation to Uighurs hoping to leave the country.
Mr Tong claimed that Uighurs have been sold to extremist groups in Syria after arriving in Turkey. “They are very easily controlled by certain local forces,” Mr Tong said. “They organise the youths, they brainwash them, and get them to the front line to fight. They are cannon fodder.”
He added: “There is competition for them. Some are sent to Iraq, some to Syria. The terrorist groups there lack people. They will snatch people away. The terrorist groups will pay at least $2,000 a person. It’s their way of recruiting soldiers.”
News of the repatriations stoked anger in Turkey. A crowd of protesters attempted to storm China’s embassy in Ankara, the Turkish capital, on Thursday, before being turned back by police. The previous night, dozens of protesters attacked the Thai consulate in Istanbul, smashing windows and furniture.
Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who plans to visit Beijing later this month, sought to calm tensions by condemning the violence. “Incidents that we never want to see and which we will never condone took place,” he said.
China’s Ministry of Public Security said 13 of the repatriated Uighurs had been implicated in terrorist activities while two others had previously escaped detention, according to a report by the Xinhua news agency that did not specify charges against the other returnees.
Photos posted online in China this weekend showed hooded male and female prisoners being escorted off planes by Chinese police.
The Chinese government has moved to limit the damage to its image in Turkey by denying reports that Uighurs were banned from observing fasting and religious worship during the holy month of Ramadan.
“China fully respects freedom of religious beliefs of Muslims,” the Chinese embassy in Ankara posted on its website. Claims to the contrary, it said, “were completely at odds with the facts”.
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