(CAAI News Media)
BEIJING (Reuters) – China will deal with 20 ethnic Uighurs who were deported from Cambodia over the weekend as illegal immigrants, praising relations with the Southeast Asian country as a model of good cooperation.
The comments came as a top Chinese official began a visit to Phnom Penh to boost commercial ties.
The Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority involved in rioting in western China that killed nearly 200 people in July, were smuggled into Cambodia in recent weeks and applied for asylum at the United Nations refugee agency office in Phnom Penh.
They were deported for breaking immigration laws, the Cambodia government said.
"Recently, Cambodia deported 20 Chinese citizens in accordance with immigration laws for illegal entry into Cambodia. China received these people in accordance with usual practices," China's Foreign Ministry said in a brief faxed statement.
"China is resolutely opposed to and will crack down hard on people smuggling, and believes the international community should step up cooperation to combat these crimes together," it added.
Human rights groups have said they feared for the lives of the Uighurs if they were deported to China. The U.N. refugee agency also condemned the deportations.
The case coincides with a visit to Cambodia by Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping, seen as frontrunner to succeed President Hu Jintao. Xi is expected to sign 14 pacts related to infrastructure construction, grants and loans.
On Sunday evening, Xi praised ties with Cambodia.
"It can be said that Sino-Cambodia relations are a model of friendly cooperation," the Foreign Ministry paraphrased Xi as saying, in a statement on its website (www.mfa.gov.cn).
China is Cambodia's biggest investor, having poured more than $4 billion in foreign direct investment into the country.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)