WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States urged Malaysia on Friday to offer temporary protection to 11 Uighur Muslims whose extradition is being sought by China.The U.S. State Department said it had called on Malaysia to allow the U.N. refugee agency access to the Uighurs - among a group of 20 originally from China who escaped from Thailand last year - to determine their eligibility for international protection and eventual resettlement in a third country.
"We urge the Malaysian authorities to conduct a transparent investigation and to provide temporary protection to any of these individuals who may be subject to torture or persecution if returned against their will," said Michael Cavey, a spokesman for the State Department's East Asia bureau.
Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said last Saturday that Malaysia had received an official request from China for the extradition of the 11.
Zahid said Malaysia was considering the request, and that police were investigating whether any of the group had been involved in terrorist activities.
Human Rights Watch has called on Malaysia to ensure Uighurs are not forcibly deported as they faced "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 of their religion and culture. It denies wrongdoing. Over the years, hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uighurs have escaped unrest in Xinjiang by traveling clandestinely via Southeast Asia to Turkey.
The 20 Uighurs broke out of a cell near the Thai-Malaysian border in November by digging holes in the wall and using blankets as ladders. Five were recaptured in Thailand 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, an action that sparked international condemnation.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)