China has expressed displeasure with a U.S. decision not to return to China a group of Chinese Muslims, known as Uighurs, who might soon be freed from detention in Guantanamo Bay.
A Chinese foreign ministry statement says Beijing hopes Washington will handle the issue of the detainees "cautiously" so as not send the wrong signals to terrorist forces.
China wants 22 Chinese from the Uighur Muslim group being held in Guantanamo Bay sent back to China, if they are freed. The men were captured in 2002 during U.S. anti-terror raids in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion of that country to oust the Taleban government. They are being held as possible enemy combatants.
Secretary of State Colin Powell last week implied that the men might be freed soon, saying the Uighurs would not be sent back to China. He said the U.S. government is looking for a third country willing to take them.
Mr. Powell did not indicate when the men might be freed or under what circumstances.
Human-rights groups say the detainees will face torture and persecution if returned to China.
China has supported Washington's war against terror, but rights activists say it has used the campaign as an excuse to crack down on the Uighur minority. The Uighurs are a Turkic people from Xinjiang Province in China's far northwest, near the border with Afghanistan, Pakistan and several of the Central Asian states. They are Muslims.
Colin McKerras, a professor at Australia's Griffith University, has conducted research on China's Muslim minority. He says the United States is faced with competing concerns.
"They were very keen for China to cooperate in the anti-terrorism war," said Mr. McKerras. "But on the other hand, they were very concerned about the human-rights question as well, because they were afraid China would use this war against terrorism in order to suppress Uighurs."
In the 1990s, the Xinjiang region experienced bombings and unrest, which China blamed on separatist groups. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, Beijing has branded the separatists as terrorists.
China and neighboring Pakistan, another active ally in the war against terror, recently held joint anti-terrorism exercises in the Xinjiang area.