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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has told his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping it is important to Turkey that Uighur Muslims live in peace as “equal citizens of China” but said Turkey respects China’s national sovereignty.
Erdogan made the comments during a phone call with Xi on Tuesday in which the two leaders discussed bilateral and regional issues, according to a statement from the Turkish presidency.
UN experts and rights groups estimate that more than one million people, mainly from the Turkic language-speaking Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, have been detained in recent years in a vast system of camps in China’s western Xinjiang region.
China initially denied the camps existed, but has since said they are vocational centres and are designed to combat “extremism”. It denies all accusations of abuse.
“Erdogan pointed out that it was important for Turkey that Uighur Turks live in prosperity and peace as equal citizens of China. He voiced Turkey’s respect for China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Turkish presidency statement said.
Erdogan told Xi that there was high potential for commercial and diplomatic ties between Turkey and China and the two leaders discussed areas including energy, trade, transportation and health, according to the statement.
He also said that they would like to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Turkey and China in a manner “worthy of the deep-rooted friendship” between the two countries, state-run Anadolu news agency reported.
Some of the 40,000 Uighurs living in Turkey have criticised Ankara’s approach to China after the two nations agreed an extradition treaty last year. Turkey’s foreign minister said in March the deal was similar to those Turkey has with other states and denied it would lead to Uighurs being sent back to China.
Hundreds of Uighurs protested against the treatment of their ethnic kin in China during a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Ankara in March.
A report released by Human Rights Watch in April said China is committing crimes against humanity in its treatment of the Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.
The report documented a “range of abuses” that also include enforced disappearances, mass surveillance, separation of families, forced returns to China, forced labour, sexual violence and violations of reproductive rights.
Some Turkish opposition leaders have accused Turkey’s government of overlooking Uighur rights in favour of other interests with China, which the government denies.
In April, Turkey summoned China’s ambassador after his embassy said it had the right to respond to Turkish opposition leaders who criticised China’s treatment of Uighurs.