- China - genocide - Tayyip Erdogan - Turkey
AFP - Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan compared Friday the plight of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang to genocide, risking the ire of China, a key trading partner.
Erdogan sharply elevated his government's criticism of Beijing as anti-Chinese demonstrations were held across Turkey in solidarity with the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority.
Erdogan, who heads Turkey's Islamist-rooted government, did not specifically blame China -- a key trading partner -- for deaths in Xinjiang but strongly criticised Beijing's inaction.
"The event taking place in China is a kind of genocide," Erdogan said, adding that "we have difficulty understanding how China's leadership... can remain a spectator in the face of these events."
At least 184 people have been killed in unrest in Xinjiang over the past week, according to official figures. Meanwhile anger has built in the Islamic world over the treatment of the Uighurs, who have long complained about repression under Chinese rule.
Up until Friday Turkey, wary of the growing importance of its ties with China, had been reluctant to forcefully rebuke Beijing over its handling of the crisis.
"Turkey is caught in a dilemma," said the International Crisis Group's Hugh Pope, who has written a book on relations between Turkey and Uighurs.
"One one hand, it has real, strong interests with China. On the other hand, the government does feel a sense of sympathy and responsibility, and media and public opinion is very emotional about the story."
Erdogan earlier said Turkey would ask the UN Security Council to discuss ways of ending the violence. The call was rejected by China, one of five permanent members of the council who can veto its actions.
"This is completely China's internal affair," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in Beijing.
Turkey often cites "internal affairs" to deflect international criticism of its handling of a 25-year Kurdish insurgency in the southeast.
"Just like China with the Uighurs, Turkey is wary of foreign powers meddling with ethnic disputes like the Kurds, so can't bang the drum about any need for international supervision too hard," Pope said.
The foreign ministry in Ankara has been careful with the wording of its statements, urging China to "act in accordance with international human rights norms and principles" in handling the unrest.
"The Turkish people feel very close to the Uighur people and share their suffering," said a ministry statement, underlining that Uighurs form a "strong bridge of friendship" between Turkey and China.
Trade and Industry Minister Nihat Ergun called for a boycott of Chinese goods, while hastening to add that this was a personal gesture with no government approval.
Prior to Erdogan's genocide comments, the media had criticised the Ankara government's stance as too soft.
"The Turkic Uighurs should at least get the same sympathy shown to the Palestinians of Gaza," said an editorial in the Sabah daily, referring to Erdogan's angry slanging match with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Davos forum this year over the Gaza war.
The unrest in Xinjiang comes at a bad time for Turkey.
President Abdullah Gul visited China in June, accompanied by 120 businessmen, in a bid to strengthen trade links.
The two sides discussed telecoms, electronics and auto sector projects. Gul also visited Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang and donned a qlapan, a traditional Uighur costume.
"China is a great power that Turkey needs a good relationship with for a wide variety of reasons," Pope said.
"Big Turkish companies are producing goods in China, and importing significant quantities of goods from China. The Turkish armed forces are very interested in Chinese military technology," he added.
Trade between Turkey and China has grown over the years to about 17 billion dollars in 2008 -- heavily in China's favour with 15.6 billion dollar's worth of exports to Turkey.