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Uighur Detainees Trigger Public Backlash in Palau

The tiny Pacific nation of Palau's decision to allow 13 Chinese Muslims from the Guantanamo Bay prison camp to resettle there has sparked anger among islanders who fear for the safety of the tranquil tourist haven.

The U.S. government determined last year that the Chinese Muslims, or Uighurs, were not enemy combatants and should be released from the U.S. military prison in Cuba. China has objected to their resettlement, calling the men "terrorist suspects" and demanding they be sent home.

The U.S. has said it fears the men would be executed if they were returned to China.

Palau President Johnson Toribiong explained his decision to grant the Uighurs entry as traditional hospitality, but public opinion has appeared overwhelmingly negative. Some complained Friday that the government failed to consult the people.

"I totally disagree" with allowing the Uighurs onto Palau, Natalia Baulis, a 30-year-old mother of two, told The Associated Press by telephone.

"It's good to be humanitarian and all, but still these people ... to me are scary," she said.

The Uighurs (pronounced WEE'-gurs) have been in custody since they were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001.

Fermin Nariang, editor of the Palau newspaper Island Times, said he had been stopped in the streets of the capital, Koror, by residents venting their anger.

"This is a very small country ... and some are saying if the whole world doesn't want these folks, why are we taking them?" Nariang said.

The newspaper quoted islander Debedebk Mongami as saying, "I'm also afraid this news is going to scare the tourists who plan to come to Palau."

The Palau Chamber of Commerce, which represents the country's multimillion dollar hotel industry, did not return calls seeking comment Friday.

Toribiong has denied the move was influenced by any massive aid package from Washington, saying instead that the Uighurs had become "international vagabonds" who deserved a fresh start.

"Palau's people are always on the side of the U.S. government," Toribiong said.

He said Palau would send a delegation to Guantanamo to assess the Uighur detainees. It was unclear when this would happen or when the Uighurs would arrive in the island nation.

Four other Uighurs left Guantanamo Bay for a new home in Bermuda on Thursday. Some residents of the North Atlantic island were also unhappy, with dozens unleashing their anger on the Facebook page of a local newspaper, The Royal Gazette.

Even Britain, which handles Bermuda's defense, security and foreign affairs, expressed displeasure at the deal.

The British Foreign Office complained that Bermuda's leaders failed to consult "whether this falls within their competence or is a security issue for which the Bermuda government do not have delegated responsibility."

Although the Pentagon said the 17 Uighurs were not enemy combatants, the Obama administration has faced fierce congressional opposition to allowing them into the U.S. as free men. China says no other country should take them.

On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news conference that the U.S. should "stop handing over terrorist suspects to any third country, so as to expatriate them to China at an early date." He did not say if China would take any action in response.

Toribiong said Palau did not consider China's reaction when it accepted the U.S. request to temporarily resettle the detainees.

Palau has eight main islands and more than 250 islets, and is a former U.S. trust territory that has retained close ties with the United States since independence in 1994.

Some 20,000 people live in Palau, a predominantly Christian nation.