Uighurs deported from Thailand were aspiring jihadists, Chinese government says

Some of the Muslim Uighurs deported to China from Thailand last week were on their way to Syria and Iraq to carry out jihad, says Chinese state television.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP/File
A young Uighur living in Turkey watches as protesters burn a Chinese flag outside China's consulate in Istanbul, Sunday, July 5, during a protest against alleged oppression by the Chinese government to Muslim Uighurs in far-western Xinjiang province.

Some of the Uighurs deported to China last week from Thailand had planned to go to Syria and Iraq to carry out jihad, state television said, showing pictures of them being bundled out of an aircraft with black hoods over their heads.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uighurs keen to escape unrest in China's western Xinjiang region have traveled clandestinely via Southeast Asia to Turkey.

China is home to about 20 million Muslims spread across its vast territory, only a portion of whom are Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language and are from Xinjiang.

Last week's deportation of 109 Uighurs from Thailand has sparked anger in Turkey, home to a large Uighur diaspora, and fed concern among rights groups and the United States that they could be mistreated upon their return.

In a report late on Saturday, state television said some of those deported had admitted to being incited by messages from the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement, which Beijing says is waging an insurgency for independence in Xinjiang, as well as the exiled group, the World Uyghur Congress.

"A fair number of them were stirred up and bewitched by terror videos issued by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and World Uyghur Congress," the report said.

"While they were being trafficked, there were those who continued to impart and stress religious extremist thinking, instigating them to go to Syria and Iraq to take part in a so-called jihad," it added.

A senior Chinese police officer said on Saturday that some of the Uighurs who reached Turkey were being sold to fight for groups, such as Islamic State, as "cannon fodder."

At least 13 of those returned are suspected of terror offenses, the report said.

It showed images of people with black hoods over their heads and large numbers pinned to their chests as they sat in a commercial aircraft surrounded by Chinese police in face masks. Upon landing, they were led out with their heads held down, and at least one apparently in chains.

Beijing denies accusations by human rights groups that it restricts the Uighurs' religious freedoms. It blames Islamist militants for violent attacks in Xinjiang in the past three years in which hundreds have died.

China has also denied allegations of mistreatment or torture.

Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, said the pictures of Uighurs in hoods showed they had been "stripped of their dignity," adding that they wanted to leave China and live elsewhere without fear of discrimination.

"Their running away is all about a non-violent way to save themselves."

China has expressed anger at criticism of its handling of the expulsions.

China's Foreign Ministry said it had lodged a protest with the United States over its condemnation of the deportations.

The U.S. statement distorted the facts, was prejudiced and would only spur further illegal immigration, it added. (Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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