BANGKOK - Thailand has sent nearly 100 Uighurs Muslims back to China, a move likely to anger Turkey and exacerbate Ankara's row with Beijing over its treatment of the Turkic language-speaking and largely Muslim minority.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uighurs have fled unrest in China's western Xinjiang region where hundreds of people have been killed, prompting a crackdown by Chinese authorities. They have travelled clandestinely through Southeast Asia to Turkey.
"Thailand sent around 100 Uighurs back to China yesterday. Thailand has worked with China and Turkey to solve the Uighur Muslim problem. We have sent them back to China after verifying their nationality," Colonel Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, deputy government spokesman, told reporters on Thursday.
A group of more than 170 Uighurs were identified as Turkish citizens and were sent to Turkey, said Weerachon, adding another nearly 100 were identified as Chinese and sent back to China and 50 more still needed to have their citizenship verified.
Rights groups have expressed concern over Thailand's decision to send the Uighurs back to China fearing they could face ill-treatment and even torture.
"It is very shocking and disturbing that Thailand caved in to pressure from Beijing," Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.
"By forcibly sending back at least 90 Uighurs, Thailand has violated international law. In China they can face serious abuses including torture and disappearance."
Weerachon told reporters that Thailand had asked China to look after the safety of the Uighurs sent back. "China said it would look after the safety of these people," he said.
China's treatment of the Uighurs is an important issue for many Turks who see themselves as sharing a common cultural and religious background. The Uighurs are regarded as "brothers" in Turkey, which already hosts a large Uighur community.
China is home to about 20 million Muslims spread across its vast territory, only a portion of whom are Uighur.
US-based Radio Free Asia reported last month that 173 Uighur women and children had arrived in Istanbul from Thailand, where they had been detained for more than a year by immigration authorities for illegal entry.
Thailand's embassy in Ankara has posted on its Facebook page that protesters angry over the Uighur issue stormed the consulate late on Wednesday and has warned around 1,300 Thais living in Turkey to "be on alert" following the attack.