Turkish supporters of Uighurs during a protest outside the Chinese embassy in Ankara last week. Photo: AFP
China has accused Turkish diplomats of providing fake passports to members of the Muslim Uighur minority attempting to flee overseas, saying that they go on to become "cannon fodder" for extremist groups in Syria and Iraq.
The accusation follows 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 and who claimed to be Turkish, 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 Uighurs. Turkey's foreign ministry called the Thai government decision to send them back to China "deplorable" and "in contravention of international humanitarian law".
In Turkey's capital, Istanbul, protesters ransacked the Thai consulate to denounce the decision.
China maintains that Uighurs who are 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.
China's official Xinhua News Agency said late on Saturday that the 109 illegal immigrants had been on their way "to join jihad", and that 13 of them had fled China after being implicated in terrorist activities. Another two had escaped detention, Xinhua said, citing the ministry of public security.
Xinhua's report also claimed that a Chinese police investigation had uncovered several gangs recruiting people for jihad, and that Turkish diplomats in some Southeast Asian countries had facilitated the illegal movement of people.
Many of the 109 had been radicalized by materials released by the World Uyghur Congress and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, Xinhua said. The former is a Munich-based Uighur rights group, and China has designated the latter a terrorist organization.
Meanwhile, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Saturday voiced China's "strong dissatisfaction with and opposition to" remarks by the US State Department that it was deeply concerned about the protection of asylum-seekers in Thailand because of the case.
The United States and United Nations have condemned the deportations and asked Thailand to stop them, saying that the Uighurs could face harsh treatment in China.
Tong Bishan, division chief of the ministry of public security's criminal investigation department, said that Uighurs from China's Xinjiang are being given Turkish identity papers in Southeast Asia by Turkish diplomats and then taken to Turkey where some are sold to fight for groups like Islamic State as "cannon fodder".
The senior Chinese official 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.
"They are obviously Chinese but they will give them identities as Turkish nationals."
Some Turks see themselves as sharing a common cultural and religious heritage with their Uighur "brothers".
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, especially the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and other terrorist groups. They organize the youths, they brainwash them, and get them to the front line to fight. They are cannon fodder," Tong said.
"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."
Tong, who has been helping lead the Chinese effort to get Uighurs in Southeast Asia back to China, said that he did not know how many Uighurs were now fighting for Islamic State.
But he said that they have found propaganda videos and messages on the mobile phones and computers of some of those who have been returned, including pictures of dead fighters and promises of the joys to come in the afterlife.
"We are providing education and support, to tell them what real Islam is about. They've been listening to and watching stuff on the Internet, from irregular imams."