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International relations

Erdogan and Xi discuss Uyghurs in phone call

Important that they are 'equal citizens of China,' Turkey's president says

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Chinese President Xi Jinping inspect an honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, in July 2019.   © Reuters

ANKARA (Reuters) -- Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Tuesday it was important to Turkey that Uyghur 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 in which the two leaders discussed bilateral and regional issues, according to a statement from the Turkish presidency.

U.N. experts and rights groups estimate over a million people, mainly from the Turkic language-speaking Uyghur 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 Uyghur 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.

Some of the 40,000 Uyghurs 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 Uyghurs being sent back to China.

Hundreds of Uyghurs protested against the treatment of their ethnic kin in China during a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Ankara in March.

Some Turkish opposition leaders have accused Turkey's government of overlooking Uyghur 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 Uyghurs.

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