PENGKALAN KUBOR, Malaysia, Sept 2 (Reuters) - Walking a diplomatic tight-rope, Malaysia gave an assurance on Friday it would not immediately hand back 131 Thai Muslims who fled across the border this week from troubled southern Thailand.
The mainly Muslim nation, with cultural and religious links with Thailand's predominantly Muslim south, has taken the 64 men, 24 women and 43 children into immigration detention and is studying claims that they fled in fear of Thai security forces.
"The initial reports we have seem to suggest that they fear for their life and so they have come to this side," Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.
The group, which crossed the porous border on Tuesday, is the largest to come to Malaysia seeking protection from violence in southern Thailand, where tensions between many Muslims and Thai security forces have flared since January 2004.
Malaysia, which chairs the world's largest body of Islamic nations, is under some pressure domestically to treat the group sympathetically. But it also risks upsetting Thailand which, according to Syed Hamid, has denied the group's claims.
"I have spoken twice today to the Thai foreign minister and he has told me there is no truth to them," he said, referring to media reports that the Thais were afraid to return home.
In Bangkok, Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow said the people were detained for "illegally entering" Malaysia and would be interviewed by Malaysian officials, a process that could take up to two weeks. "They don't have any documents," Sihasak told reporters, while denying the group's reported claims to be fleeing harassment by Thai soldiers and police.
In Kuala Lumpur, Syed Hamid said Malaysia had no formal refugee programme but gave humane treatment to people fleeing from violence.
"I think the responsibility is for the Thai side to ensure that they can overcome the fear -- whether real or perceived fear -- in the local community in Thailand so that they will not come here," he said when asked if more Thais would cross the border.
While Malaysia was prepared to consider providing temporary shelter to the fleeing Thais, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said: "We do not want to be wrongly perceived as a sanctuary and a place for conflicting parties to take retaliatory actions."
Malaysia's northern state of Kelantan, where the Thais crossed the border, has launched a fund-raising campaign to assist them, state-run news agency Bernama reported on Friday.
At the Malaysian border town of Pengkalan Kubor, separated from Thailand by a wide river, there was little sign on Friday of tighter security promised in the wake of the mass crossing.
The border post was quiet and the sound of Friday prayers filled the air from a mosque where the group had gathered and were arrested on Tuesday night for illegal entry.
An official at the white, two-storey mosque told Reuters he had spoken to the Thais before their arrest and they had complained of harassment by Thai military.
"They are afraid to return home because of constant harassment by the Thai military forces," the official said, quoting the group as saying the harassment had begun after the death of a southern Thai imam, or preacher, last week.
"They have been conducting midnight raids on Muslim houses."
A man at a shop next to the mosque said he had also spoken to the Thais: "They decided to escape because they can't sleep or work not knowing when the Thai army will come after them". Neither the shop-keeper nor the mosque official would be named.
A few Thai Muslims making routine visits to Malaysia also said some Muslims on the Thai side were in fear for their lives, but spoke about the general violence, not about Thai security.
"I expect more Thai Muslims to cross over to Malaysia if there are more bombs and explosions," said a 65-year-old Thai Muslim preacher dressed in long green robes and a white turban.
Southern Thailand has been plagued by a campaign of bombings aimed at Thai forces and blamed by Bangkok on Muslim militants. Bangkok at times has complained that Thai militants slip across the border into Malaysia when they want to avoid arrest. (Additional reporting by Clarence Fernandez in Kuala Lumpur and Panarat Thepgumpanat in Bangkok)