(Reuters) Up to 5,000 ethnic Uighurs from China’s violence-prone far western region of Xinjiang are fighting in various militant groups in Syria, the Syrian ambassador to China said on Monday, adding that Beijing should be extremely concerned about it.
China is worried that Uighurs, a mostly Muslim people who speak a Turkic language, have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight for militants there, having travelled illegally via Southeast Asia and Turkey.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the killing of a Chinese hostage in 2015, highlighting China’s concern about Uighurs it says are fighting in the Middle East.
Hundreds of people have been killed in Xinjiang in the past few years, most in unrest between Uighurs and ethnic majority Han Chinese. The government blames the unrest on Islamist militants who want a separate state called East Turkestan.
Syria’s ambassador in Beijing, Imad Moustapha, told Reuters on the sidelines of a business forum that while some of the Uighurs were fighting with ISIS, most were fighting “under their own banner” to promote their separatist cause.
“Our estimated numbers, because of the numbers we fight against, we kill, we capture, we wound, would be around 4-5,000 Xinjiang jihadists,” he said. “China as well as every other country should be extremely concerned.”
Beijing has never given a number for how many Uighurs it believes are fighting in the Middle East, but has repeatedly warned they pose a serious threat to China. It is not possible to independently verify the number of Uighurs in Syria.
Rights groups and Uighur exiles say many Uighurs have fled to Turkey simply to escape Chinese repression at home, accusations Beijing denies.
Moustapha said China did not pick favourites with rebel groups, like Western countries, and China and Syria were cooperating to fight the threat.
“They don’t have a mixed message,” he said, referring to China.
“They understand the true nature of the ultra-Islamic jihadi doctrine of these groups. Yes, we do exchange information and a little bit more than information regarding these terrorist groups,” he said, without elaborating.