ISTANBUL (AFP) - Turkish anti-Chinese demonstrators stormed the Thai consulate in Istanbul in protest at the deportation by Bangkok of dozens of Uighur Muslims to China, as diplomatic tensions flared Thursday in an increasingly combustible controversy.
The attack was the latest in a series of nationalist-tinted protests in Turkey during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan over China’s treatment of the Turkic-speaking, largely Muslim Uighurs in the northwestern Xinjiang region.
Nine people were arrested after the action at the consulate building in Istanbul late Wednesday organised by a group calling itself the East Turkestan Education Association, the Dogan news agency reported.
They broke down the doors to the building, pulled down the sign outside and damaged the furnishings inside, television footage showed.
The Thai flag was pulled down as the building was also pelted with stones. Files and documents were flung outside and littered the street while a man was seen battering a window with a post.
Shocked consulate workers returned to the office on Thursday to find their workplace upturned, with broken glass and debris littering the floor.
Thailand said it had deported around 100 Uighur Muslims detained in the kingdom since last year to China, in a move sparking fears for the safety of the asylum-seekers.
The fate of the Uighurs, who presented themselves to police as Turkish, had been the subject of a diplomatic tussle between Ankara and Beijing.
Thai government spokesman Werachon Sukhondapatipak told reporters “some 100” Uighurs were deported to China Wednesday after finding “clear evidence they are Chinese nationals”.
He also revealed that an earlier group of Uighurs, 172 women and children, were sent to Turkey in late June.
In an address to Turkish ambassadors late on Thursday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who is scheduled to visit China later this month – condemned the violence and warned against “any provocations”.
“We have our compatriots all over the world. Whatever happens to them directly concerns us. But we can never approve of what happened in Istanbul, such things don’t befit us,” Erdogan said, declaring all Asians visiting Turkey “our friends.”
In a statement released Thursday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned Thailand for sending the Uighur Turks back to China, accusing it of “acting against the international laws.”
Foreign ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic told AFP that Ankara was “saddened” by the attack on the Thai consulate, saying such actions “were not approved” and “do not benefit anyone”.
The UN refugee agency said it was “shocked” by the deportation to China after the earlier group of Uighurs had “benefited” from being moved to Turkey.
It is “a flagrant violation of international law", said Volker Turk of UNHCR in a statement which added the Uighurs “indicated that they did not wish to be deported to China”.
Turkey last week had summoned the Chinese ambassador to convey its “deep concerns” over alleged restrictions on the Uighur community during Ramadan. Beijing has denied any such restrictions.
Protests have taken place across the country, dealing a blow to relations between China and Turkey which have noticeably improved over the last few years.
On Thursday, pro-Uighur protesters who gathered outside the Thai embassy in Ankara attacked an Asian tourist, thinking that she was Chinese, news agency Dogan reported.
The woman, whose nationality was not immediately clear, was rescued by a plain-clothes police officer.
On Saturday, Turkish nationalists attacked a group of South Korean tourists in the heart of Istanbul’s old city, believing they were Chinese.
The Royal Thai Embassy in Turkey on its Facebook page warned Thai citizens to be on alert.
Turkish media reported on Thursday that China Philharmonic Orchestra cancelled a performance scheduled to take place in Istanbul in mid-August in the face of the protests.
Opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) chief Devlet Bahceli added further fuel to the fire by saying the attack on the Koreans was understandable given that both peoples have “slitty eyes”.
Meanwhile, in a possible bid to ease tensions, a report by Turkey’s state Anatolia news agency from Xinjiang said it found there were no special restrictions on Uighur Muslims during Ramadan.