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The United States is considering measures against those responsible for human rights violations against Muslims in China's Xinjiang region, a U.S. State Department spokesman said on Thursday, calling it a "great shame for humanity."
"We are committed to promoting accountability for those who are committing these violations and considering targeted sanctions as well, targeted measures, as well," spokesman Robert Palladino told reporters at a regular briefing.
Palladino later said he misspoke when he said sanctions. He did not elaborate on what he meant by targeted measures.
"We will continue to call on China to end these policies and to free these people who have been arbitrarily detained," he said.
Palladino said he echoed Turkey's description of the Xinjiang situation, in calling it a "great shame for humanity."
Palladino spoke after China hit back on Thursday in unusually strong terms at U.S. State Department criticisms of its Xinjiang policies.
In announcing the U.S. State Department's annual "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices" on Wednesday, its top human rights official said the abuses in Xinjiang were of a kind not seen since the 1930s and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said China was "in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations."
U.S. officials have said the Trump administration was considering sanctions targeting companies and officials linked to China's crackdown, including Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, who, as a member of the powerful politburo, is in the upper echelons of China's leadership.
China has roundly rejected concern about its policies in Xinjiang, where rights groups say the government is operating internment camps holding a million or more Muslims. China says they are vocational training centers aimed at de-radicalization.
It has warned of retaliation if Washington were to target Chen and the U.S. administration has yet to act despite complaints about its lack of action from U.S. lawmakers.
Any sanctions decision against so senior an official as Chen would be a rare move on human rights grounds against China by the Trump administration, which is engaged in closely-watched talks with Beijing to try to resolve a trade war.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said earlier on Thursday that the U.S. human rights report was as usual filled with "ideological prejudice" and groundless accusations. He said China had lodged a complaint with Washington about it.
Lu said China fully safeguards human rights and that the United States should take a hard look at its own domestic human rights record.