KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - Malaysia's deputy prime minister on Tuesday (Feb 20) said Kuala Lumpur was in talks with Thailand over the fate of 11 Uighur Muslims held in the country after escaping from a Thai detention centre last year.
Reuters reported this month that Malaysia had detained 11 ethnic Uighurs from China - among a group of 20 who escaped from Thailand in November - and that Beijing was in talks with Malaysia over their deportation.
Malaysia was under "great pressure" from China to hand them over to Beijing, and not to Thailand, sources told Reuters. Malaysia later said it had received an official request from China for the extradition of the 11.
"We are discussing the situation with Thailand ... We will take action that will not upset any other country and the decision will hopefully be the best course of action," said Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the Malaysian deputy prime minister.
"We will hold further negotiations that will touch on issues of diplomacy and security of the countries involved," he told reporters, adding that Malaysia would also take into account the views of human rights groups.
The United States has urged Malaysia to offer temporary protection to the Uighur Muslims, while Human Rights Watch has called on Malaysia to ensure the detained Uighurs are not forcibly deported to China as they face "credible threats of imprisonment and torture".
Beijing accuses separatist extremists among the Uighur minority of plotting attacks on China's Han majority in the restive far western region of Xinjiang and other parts of China.
China has been accused of rights abuses in Xinjiang, torture of Uighur detainees and tight control on their religion and culture. It denies wrongdoing. Over the years, hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uighurs have escaped unrest in Xinjiang by travelling clandestinely via South-east Asia to Turkey.
The 20 Uighurs broke out of a cell near the Thai-Malaysian border in November by digging holes in a wall and using blankets as ladders. Five were recaptured in Thailand later that month. The escapees were part of a larger group of more than 200 Uighurs detained in Thailand in 2014.
Members of the group identified themselves as Turkish citizens and asked to be sent to Turkey but more than 100 were forcibly returned to China in July 2015, provoking international condemnation, including some by rights groups who feared they could face torture in China.