- UN rights chief has long sought access to Chinese region
- Rights groups allege gross abuses against Uyghur ethnic group
- Beijing accuses West of smear campaign over Xinjiang
- Accusations cast shadow over Winter Olympics starting soon
The United Nations' human rights chief is talking with China for a potentially imminent trip to Xinjiang region, her office said on Friday, in what could provide rare close-up foreign scrutiny of accusations of abuses against ethnic Uyghurs.
Michelle Bachelet has long sought access to investigate an issue that has soured relations between Beijing and the West, bringing genocide accusations from Washington and a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Games.
China has denounced an international smear campaign.
Bachelet's office in Geneva said conversations were underway for a possible trip to the area in northwest China in the first half of the year. The South China Morning Post reported that a visit had been agreed for after the 4-20 February Olympics.
"The parameters of that visit are still very much under discussion," Bachelet's spokesperson Rupert Colville told a UN briefing, adding that she would need access to civil society actors and high-level engagement from the government.
China has held some visits for journalists and diplomats in recent years, albeit in tightly-controlled conditions.
Rights groups accuse China of widescale abuses against Uyghurs and other minority groups, including torture, forced labour and detention of 1 million people in internment camps.
China calls them re-education and training facilities, denies abuses, and says it is combatting religious extremism.
'Crimes against humanity?
Citing unidentified sources, The Morning Post said approval for Bachelet's visit was granted on condition it be "friendly" and not framed as an investigation, with no ensuing report.
Colville said the proposed trip was separate from a pending UN report on Xinjiang. "I can assure you they (our team) will be fending off any untoward approaches," he added.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said Bachelet had been invited to visit a long time ago for the purpose of exchange and cooperation, and added that China opposed any "political manipulation" of a trip.
With the UN Human Rights Council's five-week session set to start on 28 February, activists and diplomats say the window is closing for Bachelet to publish the report. It is thought to be based so far on research and interviews with alleged victims and witnesses inside and outside of both Xinjiang and China.
US lawmakers had wanted it released before the Olympics and activists are frustrated at the delay.
"No one, especially the world's leading human rights diplomat, should be fooled by the Chinese government's efforts to distract attention away from its crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic communities," said Sophie Richardson, China director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, last week.