BANGKOK - Thailand on Thursday said it had deported around 100 Uighur Muslims detained in the kingdom since last year to China, in a move sparking fears for the safety of the asylum-seekers.
The fate of scores of suspected Uighurs - a Turkic-speaking, largely Muslim minority in China's northwestern Xinjiang region who have long chafed under Chinese control - has hung in the balance since they were sentenced for illegal entry in Thailand in March 2014.
The migrants, who presented to police as Turkish, were held in detention as Thai authorities determined their nationalities amid a tussle between Turkey and China over where they should be moved.
On Thursday government spokesman Werachon Sukhondapatipak told reporters "some 100" Uighurs were deported to China on Wednesday after finding "clear evidence they are Chinese nationals".
He also revealed that an earlier group of Uighurs, 172 women and children, were sent to Turkey in late June - the first public announcement by Thai authorities of both deportations.
The UN refugee agency said it was "shocked" by the deportation to China after the earlier group of Uighurs had "benefited" from being moved to Turkey.
It is "a flagrant violation of international law", said Volker Turk of UNHCR in a statement which added the Uighurs "indicated that they did not wish to be deported to China".
Rights groups say Uighurs who flee from China face credible threats of torture and human rights abuses if returned.
But under pressure from Beijing, countries including Cambodia, Malaysia and Pakistan have all in recent years forcibly returned members of the ethnic minority to China.
The legal wrangle between Turkey and China over the group came to the fore in March when both countries sought the repatriation of a family of 17 that claimed they were Turkish.
Worasit Piriyawiboon, a human rights lawyer that was earlier representing the Teklimakan family, said that 15 had been deported to Turkey in June. He did not know the fate of the other two members.
Uighurs in Xinjiang, who number around 10 million, have long said they face cultural and religious repression. More recently, China has launched a wide-ranging crackdown in the region in the face of rising violence which authorities blame on Islamist separatists.
In Bangkok on Thursday, Werachon defended Thailand's deportation, saying China would put the Uighurs through its judicial process and that it was "reassured" by Beijing about the group's safety on their return.
This response was lambasted as "ludicrous" by Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch.
Thailand's military rulers, who seized power in a coup last year, have "secretly and forcibly sent as many as 115 ethnic Uighurs to China, where they could face serious human rights abuses", Sunai told AFP.
Around 50 Uighur Muslims still remain in Thai detention, the spokesman added, as their nationalities are determined.
In Istanbul late on Wednesday, a group of Turkish demonstrators stormed the Thai consulate in protest at the deportations to China, reports said, in the latest rallies over the nation's treatment of the minority.
The Royal Thai Embassy in Turkey on Facebook warned Thai citizens to be on alert.