Uighurs 'sold as cannon fodder'

They are taken from China to Turkey and many end up with extremist groups, says Beijing

BEIJING • Uighurs from China's Xinjiang region are being given Turkish identity papers by Turkish diplomats and then taken to Turkey, where some are sold to fight for groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as "cannon fodder", a senior Chinese official has said.

"Turkish embassies in South-east Asia will give them proof of identity," Mr Tong Bishan, division chief of the Ministry of Public Security's Criminal Investigation Department, told foreign reporters in Beijing yesterday. "They are obviously Chinese, but they will give them identities as Turkish nationals."

Upon arriving in Turkey, Uighurs have no chance of finding legal work and some end up with extremist groups, Mr Tong said, like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which Beijing accuses of waging an insurrection campaign in Xinjiang to set up their own state.

"They are very easily controlled by certain local forces... They organise the youngsters, they brainwash them, and get them to the front line to fight. They are cannon fodder," Mr Tong said.

"Some are sent to Iraq, some to Syria. The terrorist groups there lack people... They will pay, at least US$2,000 (S$2,700) a person."

The accusations are likely to further anger Ankara, which is already alarmed by the return of more than 100 Uighurs to China from Thailand last week.

The Chinese Ministry of Public Security says all 109 of the Uighurs sent back to China had been on their way to Turkey, Syria or Iraq to join extremist groups to fight. Of them, 13 had fled China after being implicated in terrorist activities, and another two had escaped detention, said a ministry statement.

They fled overseas with the help of recruitment gangs based in Turkey, which were uncovered by a Chinese police investigation, the ministry said.

The development comes at a time when an 80-year-old cleric from Xinjiang has called on Muslims from the region to join ISIS and fight against the "Chinese infidels" in a new propaganda video brought out by the terrorist group.

Claiming that he was once an imam at a mosque in Xinjiang, the cleric, who was identified as Muhammed Amin, says he joined ISIS after learning his son had died fighting for the group, reported The South China Morning Post.

The video, which is 21 minutes long, was uploaded on the Internet last month and appears to have been shot in Aleppo in Syria. It also shows a classroom of Uighur boys wearing headgear bearing the black-and-white ISIS insignia.

One boy points to the flag and says: "O Chinese infidels... we will come to you and raise this flag in Turkestan." He was using the name Uighurs give to Xinjiang.

Mr Tong, who has been helping to lead the Chinese effort to get Uighurs in South-east Asia back to China, said he did not know how many Uighurs were now fighting for ISIS.

But he said that propaganda videos and messages have been found on the mobile phones and computers of some of those who have been returned. "We are providing education and support, to tell them what real Islam is about. They've been listening to and watching stuff on the Internet from irregular imams."

Beijing says the Turkic language-speaking Uighur minority are firstly Chinese nationals, and those who flee China should be returned to their home region.

The deportations have sparked sometimes violent protests in Turkey, home to a large Uighur diaspora. The United States and United Nations have condemned the deportations, and asked Thailand to stop them, saying the Uighurs could face harsh treatment in China. REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 12, 2015, with the headline 'Uighurs 'sold as cannon fodder''. Print Edition | Subscribe