updated 9/30/2004 2:07:58 PM ET 2004-09-30T18:07:58

China urged the Canadian Embassy on Thursday to hand over 44 possible North Korean asylum-seekers, while officials said nine North Koreans who entered an American school in Shanghai had been handed over to Chinese police.

Assistant Foreign Minister Shen Guofang said the group that scaled a fence at the Canadian Embassy on Wednesday would be handled in line with international law and “the spirit of humanitarianism” if they were handed over to China. However, he didn’t give any indication of their fate.

“Since these people entered Chinese territory illegally, the Canadian side should hand them over to China,” Shen said at a news briefing.

A Canadian Embassy spokesman said he wasn’t aware of a Chinese request for custody of the 44 men, women and children. Diplomats were trying to confirm their identities and nationality, but the spokesman said at least some were North Korean.

In Shanghai, the group of nine North Koreans entered the American School on Monday and were handed over to police, who didn’t give any assurance about what might happen to them, according to a U.S. Consulate official and a school employee.

Flight from famine, repression
Such asylum bids have become common in China, with North Koreans who are fleeing famine and repression at home rushing into embassies, schools and other foreign facilities.

China has allowed hundreds of North Korean asylum-seekers to leave for South Korea. Despite a treaty that obliges Beijing to send them home, it hasn’t done so in cases that become public.

The American School in Shanghai lacks any diplomatic status, unlike embassies, which by treaty are foreign territory beyond the reach of Chinese authorities, said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In Beijing, the group of men, women and children at the Canadian Embassy used ladders to climb over a spiked fence Wednesday in what appeared to be the largest recent asylum bid by North Koreans. One other man was caught by police.

One of the people who got into the compound was sent to a hospital with injuries he might have sustained climbing over the fence, said embassy spokesman Ian Burchett.

The other 43 in the embassy are doing “quite well,” and have been given bedding, Korean food and access to washrooms, he said.

Hiding in China
“They’re being housed in a room that is usually used for large public events,” Burchett said.

A South Korean news report said all 44 were North Koreans and two were former political prisoners.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans live in hiding in China’s northeast. The refugees are an embarrassing reminder of the dismal conditions in the North, whose isolated dictatorship is officially Beijing’s ally.

The group at the Canadian Embassy was made up of five families and included an escapee from a North Korean prison and a woman who had been a political prisoner, the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported on its Web site. It said one 66-year-old woman in the group escaped once before from the North in 1997 but was caught and sent home.

Last year, a total of 1,285 North Koreans reached South Korea, up from 1,140 in 2002.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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