CAIRO (NYTIMES) - At least 12 Chinese nationals were deported and put on a flight to China late on Thursday (July 6), and 22 more were detained for immediate deportation, three Egyptian aviation officials said.
According to a Chinese student who said he was friends with some of those detained, all were Uighurs, members of an ethnic group that is mostly Sunni Muslim and lives mainly in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang.
The student, Mr Muhammed Emin Nurmuhammed, said his friends had been studying at Al Azhar, a mosque and university in Cairo.
Two of the aviation officials said Egyptian police had ordered them to deport at least 22 Chinese nationals on Thursday without providing an explanation. They were held at a police facility and were to be put on a flight that was scheduled to leave just before midnight.
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At least 12 others were forced to leave on an EgyptAir flight to Guangzhou, a third aviation official said.
All three aviation officials asked for anonymity to discuss the episodes.
Egyptian police spokesman Tarek Attiya said that he could not confirm or deny the deportations.
Al Azhar mosque, Egypt's Aviation Ministry and EgyptAir did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Mr Nurmuhammed, who is Muslim and lives in Istanbul, said his friends had been living in fear of arrest for several weeks.
"They were scared because the Chinese government told everyone who is studying Islamic studies to come back," he said. "They were worried about getting arrested in Cairo but they decided because they knew that if they go to China, they will definitely get arrested."
The repatriations seemed to be in support of the Chinese government's deepening effort to stifle resistance among Uighurs in Xinjiang, which neighbours Central Asia.
In recent years, Xinjiang has seen protests and attacks by Uighurs, resentful of a growing Chinese presence there.
In response, the Chinese government has tried to roll back the influence of Islamic traditionalism among Uighurs, a Turkic people. Increasingly that effort has spilled abroad, especially in Turkey and the Middle East, where many Uighurs go to work or study.
Mr Nurmuhammed said at least two of his friends had wives and children in Cairo.
"I spoke to one wife who said she was hiding on the roof of their home because she doesn't know where to go," he said. "And I spoke to another one who was just walking around the neighbourhood. They are panicking."
Mr Nurmuhammed's friends shot videos of themselves in detention using their phones and told him through WhatsApp that at least 75 other Chinese people were in custody.
The footage shared by Mr Nurmuhammed could not be independently verified but it was widely shared on social media. One video shows people standing inside what looked like a government building with Egyptian police signs on the wall. Other videos show the men handcuffed inside a van.
Ms Lucia Parrucci of the World Uyghur Congress, an advocacy group based in Germany, said that more than 80 Uighurs had been arrested in Cairo since July 1.
"This is all because of the recent cooperation that is taking place between Egypt and China," she said.
"We believe that 90 per cent of them left since then," she said, adding that 60 Uighurs had successfully fled to Turkey from Egypt on Thursday.
At least 20 of the Uighurs still in Cairo were trying to seek political asylum through the United Nations refugee agency, she said. The number detained in Egypt remains unknown.
"People are scared" and so it is difficult to verify information, Ms Parrucci said.