BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese officials in Thailand have identified "dozens" of Uighurs from the Chinese region of Xinjiang who were rescued by Thai police from a human-smuggling camp and those confirmed from China will be sent home, a Chinese newspaper said on Friday.
Thai police previously told Reuters that the roughly 200 people rescued in March were believed to be Uighurs, a Muslim people from the western Chinese region who speak a Turkic language, many of whom chafe at government restrictions on their culture and religion.
The Global Times, a tabloid published by the Chinese Communist Party's People's Daily, said China's consulate in the southern Thai city of Songkhla had identified some of the men and discovered "dozens" of them were Uighur.
But it did not know the nationality of women and children who are also with the group, the newspaper said.
"Once we confirm that they are Chinese, they would be sent back to China," a Chinese diplomat surnamed Qin told the newspaper.
In 2009, 20 Uighurs were deported from Cambodia to China despite the objections of the United Nations and human rights groups, who said they faced lengthy jail terms upon their return.
New York-based Human Rights Watch also criticized Malaysia for deporting six Uighurs to China last December.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, however, told a daily news briefing in Beijing that he could not confirm that any of the people in southern Thailand were Uighur.
"China has maintained communication with the Thai side. Our attitude is that we are opposed to illegal immigration," Hong said.
Hundreds of people have been killed in unrest in Xinjiang in the past two years, prompting a crackdown by Chinese authorities.
Small numbers of Uighur people have begun trickling out of China to Southeast Asia. They are believed to go overland into Laos or Myanmar, and then on to Thailand and elsewhere.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Robert Birsel