Thailand on Wednesday deported 109 ethnic Uighurs to China, officials confirmed Thursday, touching off a protest in Turkey, which is battling with China over where the refugees should be sent and their treatment by Beijing.
The Uighurs were deported "as per protocol" after Thai authorities identified their country of origin, deputy government spokesman Weerachon Sukondhapatipak told reporters.
"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," Maj Gen Weerachon said on Thursday.
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.
The spokesman confirmed that 173 Uighurs were deported to Turkey a week ago, and that after the latest deportation a few more remained in custody as their country of origin had not yet been determined.
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The Uighurs, previously held in Thai immigration detention centres for illegally entering the country, have been at the centre of a tug of war between China and Turkey who both claim to be their country of origin.
The deportation touched off a violent protest at the Thai consulate in Istanbul late Wednesday. Protesters broke into the consulate building, smashed windows and lowered the Thai flag before being dispersed by police.
Rights groups also 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."
Maj Gen 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..
Earlier this week, Beijing issued a travel warning for Turkey after a string of xenophobic incidents against Chinese targets.
The World Uighur Congress, an umbrella organisation for the Uighur diaspora, criticised the "covert, and indeed heinous, operation" by Thailand.
The group had warned that the ethnic Muslim Uighurs would face "criminal allegations" and "heavy-handed" punishment in China.