ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey vowed on Friday to keep its doors open to ethnic Uighur migrants fleeing persecution in China, a stance likely to exacerbate Ankara’s row with Beijing over its treatment of the largely Muslim, Turkic-language speaking minority.
U.S.-based Radio Free Asia reported that 173 Uighur women and children had arrived in Istanbul this week from Thailand, where they had been detained for more than a year by immigration authorities for illegal entry.
Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic declined to comment on the report, but said Ankara would continue to welcome its “Uighur brothers”, citing “cultural and historical bonds”.
“Turkey is keeping its doors open for Uighurs who have arrived or want to come to our doors,” he told a news conference.
Reuters was not able to independently verify the Radio Free Asia report.
However, Worasit Piriyawiboon, a Thai lawyer who previously represented a family believed to have been Uighurs, told Reuters that more than 170 Uighurs had left Thailand on Monday on a “secret charter flight” provided by Turkey.
China’s treatment of the Uighurs, who live in the far western region of Xinjiang, is an important issue for many Turks, who see themselves as sharing a common cultural and religious background.
Earlier this week Turkey angered China by expressing concern about reports of restrictions on Muslim Uighurs worshipping and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
Beijing denied restricting religious freedoms and demanded that Turkey clarify its statements.
Ramadan has become a sensitive time in Xinjiang following a rise in attacks blamed by Beijing on Islamist militants over the past three years. Hundreds have died in the violence.
China is home to about 20 million Muslims spread across its vast territory, only a portion of whom are Uighur.
Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Ben Blanchard and Adam Rose in Beijing and Amy Sawitta Lefevre in Bangkok; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Gareth Jones