updated 6/11/2009 5:23:16 AM ET 2009-06-11T09:23:16

Beijing said Thursday that the 17 Chinese Muslims the United States is sending to Pacific island nation of Palau are terrorists and should be handed back to China instead.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the United States should "stop handing over terrorist suspects to any third country, so as to expatriate them to China at an early date."

Palau President Johnson Toribiong said earlier in the week that Palau had agreed to a U.S. request to temporarily resettle the detainees, who were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001 but later determined by the Pentagon to not be enemy combatants after being detained in Guantanamo Bay.

"China also opposes any country taking any of these terrorist suspects," Qin said. He did not say if China would take any action in response to the U.S. move.

Beijing says the detainees are members of extremist groups working to separate the far western region of Xinjiang from China.

Palau does not have diplomatic relations with China, which may make it harder for Beijing to pressure Palau. Instead, it has ties with Taiwan.

A former U.S. trust territory in the Pacific, Palau has retained close ties with the United States since independence in 1994 and is entitled to U.S. protection under an accord.

More on: Palau | Guantanamo

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