(Reuters) - The United Nations is holding "serious negotiations" with China on gaining unfettered access to the Xinjiang region to verify reports that Muslim Uighurs are being persecuted, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said.
The UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said last month that reports of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, sexual violence and forced labor in Xinjiang necessitated a thorough and independent assessment.
Bachelet said in February that talks on organizing a visit had begun but no agreement has yet been reached.
Bachelet's visit "is being negotiated at the present moment between the office of the High Commissioner and the Chinese authorities," Guterres said in an interview shown by Canadian Broadcasting Corp's Rosemary Barton Live show on Sunday.
"And I hope that they will reach an agreement soon and that the human rights commissioner will be able to visit China without restrictions or limitations," he added.
China said it welcomes Bachelet visiting Xinjiang, but that the visit should not be used as a form of "political manipulation" to pressure China.
"The purpose of this visit should be to promote interaction and cooperation, and not to carry out so-called investigation on the presumption of guilt," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a news briefing in Beijing on Monday.
China's sensitivity to criticism of its treatment of the Uighur minority was underscored on Saturday when it announced targeted sanctions against two American religious-rights officials and a Canadian lawmaker who had denounced Beijing's treatment of them and other minorities.
Activists have expressed skepticism about the prospects for a meaningful visit with unfettered access in China.
The Chinese government denies any mistreatment and has said that people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang and the Tibetan region enjoy wide-ranging freedoms.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer in Ottawa; Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Timothy Heritage)