Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The Pentagon has approved the release of a group of Uighur Muslims who are among the terror suspects detained at Guantanamo Bay, but the U.S. is trying to find a third country willing to take them, because of fears they will face persecution or death if they return to China.
Human rights groups have warned that the Uighurs could face torture and possible execution if they were repatriated. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday the U.S. government was "certainly not in a position to say that they wouldn't be tortured or persecuted" if they returned.
About 22 Uighurs are among several hundred detainees being held by the U.S. military at the camp in Cuba since being captured during war on terrorism operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere since late 2001.
The Pentagon had okayed the release of some of the 22 as they "have been determined not to pose a threat any longer to the United States or its allies," Boucher said.
The group did not wish to return to China, and that the U.S. was looking into resettlement opportunities elsewhere. He did not name countries, but the Financial Times reports that several European nations have been approached.
Boucher said he did not know whether the Uighurs would qualify for asylum in the U.S.
Turkic Uighurs are the largest minority group in China's far-western Xinjiang, an oil-rich and predominantly Muslim region where separatists have long called for the re-establishment of an independent area called East Turkestan, which existed briefly in 1933 and again in 1944.
Since 9/11, Beijing has insisted that a small Uighur separatist group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) has ties to al-Qaeda and should be tackled as part of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
In mid-2002, the U.S. designated the ETIM as a foreign terrorist organization and froze its assets, a step welcomed by China.
Experts who study Xinjiang differ over the extent to which some Uighur extremists have links to al-Qaeda, although terrorism researcher B. Raman, the director of the Institute of Topical Studies in Chennai, India, says ETIM is a member of Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front.
China's claims that around 1,000 Uighur fighters trained in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan before the post-9/11 U.S.-led campaign to overthrow the militia. Raman agrees Uighurs did train there, but says the number was more likely no more than 100.
In October 2001, the New York-based Human Rights Watch acknowledged that some Uighur groups were waging a violent campaign, but depicted it as a nationalist rather than Islamist one.
It said China had mounted a "broad crackdown" on the Uighur community, using the war on terror as a pretext.
Campaigners say hundreds of Uighur separatists have been executed and thousands jailed by the Chinese.
The State Department agrees that Uighurs are repressed.
In its latest annual report on human rights around the world, the department accused the Chinese government of "backsliding" on its rights record during 2003, citing abuses against Uighurs among other issues.
During a visit to Beijing early this week, Chinese officials urged Secretary of State to send the Uighurs being held at Guantanamo Bay back to China, Boucher said.
The subject came up again in talks in Washington Thursday between Powell and Chinese military chief of staff, Gen. Liang Guanglie, he said.
The Xinhua news agency reported this week that Xinjiang is expected to replace northeast China as the country's new source for energy products, and will supply more than one-fifth of China's oil by 2010.
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