WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Palau's president said Thursday his tiny Pacific nation will take in 17 Chinese Muslims who are in limbo at Guantanamo Bay, but China called them "terrorist suspects" and demanded they be sent home.
Palau President Johnson Toribiong said the Uighurs have become "international vagabonds" who deserve his country's age-old tradition of hospitality. China said it opposes any country taking them.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news conference the United States 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.
Palau, a former U.S. trust territory in the Pacific, is one of a handful of countries that does not recognize China, instead recognizing Taiwan.
Toribiong said Palau did not consider China's reaction when it accepted the U.S. request to temporarily resettle the detainees, who were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001 though the Pentagon later decided they were not enemy combatants.
The Obama administration faced fierce congressional opposition to allowing the Uighurs on U.S. soil as free men and sought alternatives abroad.
The U.S. has said it feared the men would be executed if they returned to China.
Toribiong said the Uighur detainees from China's arid west would start their new lives in a halfway house to see how they acclimatize to his tropical archipelago west of the Philippines. He called Palau a "Christian nation" but with a 450-member Muslim community.
"It's an old-age tradition of Palauans to accommodate the homeless who find their way to the shores of Palau," Toribiong told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "We did agree to accept them due to the fact that they have become basically homeless and need to find a place of refuge and freedom."
Beijing says the men are members of extremist groups working to separate the far western region of Xinjiang from China.
"We understand these 17 people are not terrorists but separatists from their national government in China," Toribiong said. "If China objects to their being in Palau, I would think their objection was also directed at their detention in Guantanamo Bay."
Toribiong said Palau would send a delegation to Guantanamo to assess the Uighur detainees.
With eight main islands and more than 250 islets, Palau is best known for diving and tourism and is located some 500 miles east of the Philippines.
Palau has retained close ties with the United States since independence in 1994 and is entitled to U.S. protection under an accord.
Two U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said earlier this week that the U.S. was prepared to give Palau up to $200 million in development, budget support and other assistance in return for accepting the Uighurs and as part of a mutual defense and cooperation treaty that is due to be renegotiated this year.
How long the men stay depends on whether they can find a better place to go, Toribiong said.
"So we'll accept them and the details of the arrangements will be worked out, and they will be here until we can find out where they should be permanently located," he said.
Asked if there had been any public reaction in Palau to the decision, Toribiong said, "Palau's people are always on the side of the U.S. government."