Four out of six Uyghurs who joined an extremist group in Indonesia headed by the country's most wanted militant have been killed in recent weeks in Central Sulawesi province, according to the local police chief.
The claim by Central Sulawesi Police Chief Brig. Gen. Rudy Sufahriadi that four Uyghurs were recently killed doubles the number of Uyghurs who reportedly died after joining Santoso's Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT), which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State extremists.
Two of the Uyghurs, Farok (alias Magalasi Bahtusan) and Nuretin (alias Abdul Malik), were killed in a gunfight with the national army and police on March 15, Rudy said last week.
That same day MIT dumped the body of another Uyghur into a river in the village of Lelo, after he allegedly tried to flee from the group. And, during a shootout a week later in the village of Rompo, a Uyghur identified as Joko (alias Turang Ismail), was killed, according to Rudy.
Two other Uyghurs, Ibrahim and Mustafa Genc (alias Mus'ab), are believed to be at-large and are on the Indonesian national police's most wanted list.
Series of arrests
Uyghurs are members of a Muslim minority in China, who mostly live in the western Xinjiang region. They also are spread across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkey.
Some Uyghurs have been accused of being involved in militant groups and committing acts of terrorism.
In February, two Uyghur men pleaded not guilty to charges related to the bombing of a Hindu Shrine in Bangkok that killed 20 and injured another 120 on Aug. 17, 2015.
Last year in Indonesia, police arrested, prosecuted and convicted four Uyghur men, accusing them of trying to join MIT in Central Sulawesi, where the militant group operates. A court in West Jakarta sentenced the four to six years in prison.
As 2015 came to an end, Indonesian police arrested another Uyghur, Ali, in Bekasi, West Java, as he allegedly prepared to be a "bride" - a term coined by Islamic radical groups to describe suicide bombers - a foiled terror plot planned for New Year's Eve.
Then, in early January, police arrested two Uyghurs in Bandung, the capital of West Java.
"Both are still being processed by police. The case is handled by Densus 88," National police spokesman Brig. Gen. Agus Riyanto told RFA.
According to Ridlwan Habib, a terrorism expert at the University of Indonesia, Uyghurs have entered Indonesia by illegal routes from western China via Thailand, Singapore, and the nearby Indonesian island of Batam.
"Thailand is known as a paradise for production of fake documents. If [they] passed there, they went to Jakarta and proceeded to Puncak [in Bogor, West Java]. Then they went to Makassar, from where they took a land route to Poso," he told RFA, referring to Poso regency in Central Sulawesi.
He said some Uyghurs came to Indonesia to train with Santoso's group before returning to China to commit acts of terror. Besides Poso, Mindanao province in the southern Philippines and Pattani province in southern Thailand also are places for militant training camps, he said.
"Military training in Southeast Asia is more economical and efficient. Many of them do not have access to Syria," Ridlwan said.
Thai officials challenge Reuters report
Meanwhile in Thailand over the weekend, Reuters quoted a Thai police official as saying that two Uyghurs who were linked to "foreign terror groups" had traveled to Phuket at the end of March, stayed one night and left the country.
However, the official quoted in the story, Lt. Gen. Suchart Teersawat, later told RFA that he could not confirm details about the pair.
"We are examining the issue but we cannot 100 percent confirm [this]. We were informed by foreign sources. The Uyghurs in question stayed in Thailand for a couple of days and they have already left," Suchart told Benar.
Elsewhere, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said that two Uyghurs who had recently left Thailand for Malaysia were economic refugees and not terrorists, according to The Straits Times.
"They are using Thailand and Malaysia as a transit point to get to a third country and to brand them as terrorists, I think it's unfair," Straits Times quoted Zahid as saying.
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