Thais hunt Uighurs after detention centre breakout

Bangkok: A manhunt was under way Tuesday for 20 ethnic Uighurs from China who made a daring escape from an immigration detention centre in southern Thailand, as Beijing urged Bangkok to return the group to Chinese soil.
Police said the escapees bored through the wall of the centre in Sadao, near Thailand’s southernmost border, using blankets to climb out as heavy rains masked their flight.
The group were among hundreds detained in Thailand 2014 despite their claims to be Turkish citizens.
Turkey shares ethnic links with the Uighurs and accepts those who flee from China’s western Xinjiang region.
Five of the runaways were caught soon after their pre-dawn breakout on Monday, Thai Immigration Police said, with authorities releasing security camera images of men slipping outside the jail cell in darkness.
“Twenty are still on the run but… they don’t have food and cannot communicate with villagers,” Immigration Police spokesman Cherngron Rimpadee said.
“They are likely to aim for Malaysia. We believe they will be caught soon,” he said, adding border patrols have been beefed up.
Six Thai immigration officers have been transferred pending an investigation into the breakout.
A spokesman for China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said Beijing was urging Thai authorities to return the Uighurs.
“China has asked Thailand’s relevant departments to bring back these fugitives as soon as possible,” spokesman Lu Kang said at a press briefing on Tuesday.
In July 2015 Thailand forcibly deported 100 Uighurs, who were initially detained with the group of escapees, back to Chinese authorities.
The move was blasted by the UN and followed one month later by a deadly blast at a Bangkok shrine that killed ethnic Chinese tourists.
Two Uighur-origin men are facing trial for the bombing, sparking speculation the attack may have been in revenge for the forced deportation.
Thailand does not grant asylum to refugees but has said Uighurs can remain in Thai custody until their citizenship is established, with some 61 currently in detention across the country.
Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the Germany-based World Uighur Congress, called on Thailand to ensure the safety of the escapees.
The group are “refugees” who “chose to flee (because) they were in a terrifying and desperate situation,” he said by email. — AFP