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US Continues Search for Country of Refuge for Detained Chinese Uighurs

The State Department says U.S. officials are continuing an effort to find a country of refuge for Muslim Uighurs from China detained since the war in Afghanistan at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A spokesman says the Uighurs will not be sent back to China against their will.

Officials here concede that a number of countries have rebuffed U.S. appeals that they grant refuge to the Uighurs from Guantanamo Bay.

But they are rejecting a report Thursday that the months of diplomatic soundings have been fruitless, and that the former terrorism suspects might eventually have to be sent back to China.

About 25 Muslim Uighurs from western China were among hundreds of suspects detained by U.S. and allied forces after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and later transferred to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo.

About 15 of them have been determined to no longer pose a threat to the United States and its allies and the Pentagon has approved their release.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said the Uighurs fear persecution if returned to China and the United States will not do so.

"These people do not wish to return to China, and we're certainly not in a position to say that they wouldn't be tortured or persecuted," he said. "And so we're still looking into resettlement of the Uighurs outside of China. We've talked to several countries and we're continuing our efforts to find a country or countries that would be willing and interested in accepting them."

The comments were prompted by a report by the London-based Financial Times newspaper Thursday which said Germany and several other European countries had refused U.S. requests to accept the Uigurs.

It quoted a State Department official as saying the United States would have to consider sending them back to China if a refuge could not be found.

However, a U.S.diplomat reiterated to VOA that forced repatriation to China is not an option.

He would not name the countries, which have been approached about accepting the detainees.

But he said at least one government has expressed serious interest, and that U.S. officials are fairly confident of success in relocating them.

China has accused Uighur separatists of using terrorist tactics and says they should be treated like any other terrorists targeted by the United States.

In 2002, the United States did add one Uighur group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), to a list of foreign terrorist organizations.

However, the State Department in its most recent report on human rights practices worldwide, accused China of using the international war on terrorism as a justification for cracking down on Uighurs expressing peaceful political dissent.

Under questioning here, Spokesman Boucher said the issue of the Uighurs at Guantanamo Bay did come up in Secretary of State Colin Powell's talks in Beijing early this week, and that China asked that they be returned.