A news report says nine North Korean defectors have been forced to return to their country from China after being captured in Laos.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted a senior Foreign Ministry official in Seoul as saying the defectors were flown home Tuesday despite a South Korean request that China not repatriate them. It said the unidentified official expressed strong regret Wednesday over the Chinese decision.

It said the defectors, aged between 15 and 23, fled to Laos through China last month and were caught by Laotian authorities earlier this month. Laos sent the defectors to China on Monday, weeks after a Laotian delegation visited the North Korean capital.

Yonhap said Laos has become a regular transit point for North Korean defectors who hope to reach South Korea.