BEIJING – China's official news agency said that 109 ethnic Uighurs who Thailand deported to China amid international criticism that the refugees could face persecution had been on their way to Turkey, Syria or Iraq to take part in holy war.
On Thursday, Thai authorities sent back the Uighurs, who had been in Thailand for over a year and claimed to be Turkish, after determining they were Chinese.
China's official Xinhua News Agency said late 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.
The repatriations were criticized by the U.N. refugee agency and rights groups. In Turkey's capital, Istanbul, protesters ransacked the Thai consulate to denounce the decision.
The Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) are a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in China's far western region of Xinjiang. The group has complained of harsh cultural and religious suppression as well as economic marginalization under Chinese rule.
Beijing has accused Uighur separatists of terrorism in Xinjiang, where ethnic violence has left hundreds of people dead over the past two years.