Beijing (AFP) – China has arrested 10 Turkish citizens and nine Uighurs over a plot to smuggle the members of the ethnic minority – including a wanted “terrorist” – out of the country, a state-run newspaper reported Wednesday.
Uighurs, who number around 10 million in China’s violence-wracked Xinjiang region, are a Turkic-speaking and mostly Muslim ethnic minority who have long chafed under Chinese control.
According to the Global Times newspaper, police made the arrests in November after the nine Uighurs tried to leave China from Shanghai Pudong airport using altered Turkish passports.
The 10 Turkish suspects had entered China on the original documents, then had them manipulated and sold nine to the Uighurs for 60,000 yuan ($9,680) each, the paper reported, citing authorities in the financial hub.
Two members of China’s Han ethnic majority were also being held, said the paper, which is close to the Communist party.
One of the Uighurs was a “wanted terrorist”, and terror-related videos and recordings “meant to incite discrimination and ethnic hatred” were found on some of the suspects’ phones, it said.
The suspects cited Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan among their planned destinations, it added.
China’s foreign ministry declined to confirm the arrests but noted state media reports had “gone into great detail” on the case.
“To crack down on illegal immigration is a consensus of the international community; it is also the longstanding position and stand of the Chinese government,” said foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei.
Shanghai police and the Turkish consulate in Shanghai declined to comment on the case, while the Turkish embassy in Beijing could not be contacted. Beijing has blamed a series of recent attacks on violent separatists from Xinjiang, where information is often difficult to verify independently.
Such attacks have grown in scale and sophistication over the last year and have spread outside the restive region.
In March, knife-wielding assailants killed 29 people and wounded more than 130 at Kunming train station in Yunnan province, in an attack blamed by officials on separatists from Xinjiang and dubbed “China’s 9/11” by state-run media.
Rights groups accuse China’s government of cultural and religious repression they say fuels unrest in Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia.
There was no explanation given for why the Uighurs sought to leave by air from Shanghai, rather than crossing a land border.
Recent months have seen a series of reports about Uighurs fleeing China, and Beijing has repeatedly put pressure on other countries to forcibly return them – regardless of any suspected terror ties.
In September, Indonesian police said they had arrested four Uighurs suspected of being linked to the Islamic State group. The four had entered the country using forged Turkish passports, authorities said.
Months earlier, in March, 300 asylum seekers were discovered by police in Thailand, saying they were Turkish but US-based Uighur activists identified them as Uighurs.
Many Uighurs say they routinely encounter discrimination in China, including in finding housing and employment as well as in applying for Chinese passports.