China claims that a group of more than 100 ethnic Uighur refugees who were recently repatriated back to the country from Thailand planned "to join jihad" in the Middle East, and did not flee because of political, social, and economic repression as they have asserted.
Human rights groups and Turkish officials have denounced Thailand's repatriation last week of 109 Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking minority Muslim population that is concentrated primarily in China's fractious western region of Xinjiang. Hundreds have died amid escalating ethnic violence in the last two years, with China repeatedly blaming "terrorism" and "religious extremism" for continued unrest in the region.
On Chinese state media late Saturday, officials called the refugees "illegal immigrants" who had sought to join militants in Turkey, Syria, or Iraq. At least 13 had been involved in some terrorist-related activities, and two had escaped detention, the Ministry of Public Security said, according to Xinhua News Agency.
The Uighurs were allegedly radicalized by documents sent to them by the exiled World Uyghur Congress, a German-based Uighur rights organization, and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which China has deemed as a terrorist group, the report said.
Officials also said Turkish diplomats were working with several gangs involved in the "illegal" trafficking, recruitment, and radicalization of people through various Southeast Asian countries.
Chinese state media showed the deportees on an aircraft with black hoods over their heads.
Turkey, which has cultural and linguistic ties to the Uighur minority, condemned the decision to return the Uighurs to China from Thailand, where they had been seeking asylum for more than a year.
The Uighurs were part of a larger group who had declared they were all Turkish. Thai officials determined that 181 were Turkish and sent them to Turkey this month, but said 109 were Chinese and should be returned to that country, despite protests from the United Nations refugee group, which said that the move violated international humanitarian law. At least 52 Uighurs remain in Thailand, but will be sent elsewhere once their nationalities have been determined, Thai officials said.
Last week, a video emerged of a group of mostly Uighur protesters storming the Thai embassy in Istanbul, where they smashed up furniture, threw files into the courtyard, and brought down the Thai flag.
Protests in Turkey have broken out before over the alleged mistreatment of the Uighur community in China. This month, protesters in Turkey burned Chinese flags and attacked a group of Koreans they mistook for Chinese after unconfirmed reports emerged that officials in China were banning Uighurs from fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. China subsequently issued a travel warning against its citizens visiting Turkey.
This week, Xinhua tweeted out pictures that purportedly showed Uighurs in China observing Ramadan. Chinese state media also published a report today saying "It is not true that China has banned local Muslims in Xinjiang to observe the holy month of Ramadan."
Thailand's leader defended its decision to repatriate the Uighurs.
"If we don't do it this way, then how would we do it?" Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said. "Do you want us to keep them for ages until they have children for three generations?"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.