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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - China has asked Malaysia to extradite 11 Uighur Muslims detained in the Southeast Asian country after their escape from a Thai detention centre last year, Malaysia's deputy prime minister said on Saturday.
Citing sources, Reuters reported on Thursday that the 11 ethnic Uighur from China, who were among 20 that escaped from Thailand last year, have been detained in Malaysia, and that Beijing was in talks with Malaysia over their deportation.
Malaysia was under "great pressure" from China to hand them over to Beijing, and not to Thailand, and some Western foreign missions were trying to dissuade them from sending the Uighur to China, the sources said.
"We have received an official request from China to extradite the 11 Uighurs," Malaysian deputy premier Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said, according to state news agency Bernama, in the first official comments on the matter.
Zahid said Malaysia was considering the request, and that the police were investigating "whether those 11 individuals were involved in any terror activities".
According to other media reports, Zahid denied Malaysia was facing any pressure from China for the Uighurs' deportation.
The United States on Friday expressed concerns over Malaysia's possible deportation of the Uighur to China, while Human Rights Watch called on Malaysia to ensure the detained Uighur are not forcibly deported to China as they face "credible threats of imprisonment and torture".
Beijing accuses separatist extremists among the Uighur minority of plotting attacks on China's Han majority in the restive far western region of Xinjiang and other parts of China.
China has been accused of rights abuses in Xinjiang, torture of Uighur detainees and tight control on their religion and culture. It denies wrongdoing. Over the years, hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uighur have escaped unrest in Xinjiang by travelling clandestinely via Southeast Asia to Turkey.
The 20 Uighur broke out of a cell near the Thai-Malaysian border in November by digging holes in the wall and using blankets as ladders. Five of them were recaptured in Thailand later that month. The escapees were part of a larger group of more than 200 Uighur detained in Thailand in 2014.
Members of the group identified themselves as Turkish citizens and asked to be sent to Turkey but more than 100 were forcibly returned to China in July 2015, a move that sparked international condemnation, including from rights groups who feared they could face torture in China.
(Reporting by A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Dale Hudson)