Tibet deaths, arrests and protests shadow Olympics

BEIJING Tue Mar 25, 2008 9:10pm IST

Chinese riot policemen patrol the streets in Lhasa, Tibet March 25, 2008. At least two people have died in fresh protests in a Tibetan part of western China, reports said on Tuesday, as authorities made arrests in Tibet's capital Lhasa in an effort to reassert control over the restive region. REUTERS/Stringer

Chinese riot policemen patrol the streets in Lhasa, Tibet March 25, 2008. At least two people have died in fresh protests in a Tibetan part of western China, reports said on Tuesday, as authorities made arrests in Tibet's capital Lhasa in an effort to reassert control over the restive region.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

BEIJING (Reuters) - At least two people have died in fresh protests in a Tibetan part of western China, reports said on Tuesday, as authorities made arrests in Tibet's capital Lhasa in an effort to reassert control over the restive region.

State media said one police officer was killed and the exiled Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy reported one Tibetan protester shot dead and another critically hurt after unrest in Sichuan's Ganzi (Garze) Tibetan Prefecture.

"The police were forced to fire warning shots, and dispersed the lawless mobsters," the brief Xinhua news agency report said, without mentioning any deaths of protesters, who it said attacked with rocks and knives.

The latest news of unrest and arrests comes after protesters seeking to put pressure on China tried to disrupt the Beijing Olympic Games torch-lighting ceremony in Greece, an act that Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang called "disgraceful".

French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged China on Tuesday to show responsibility over the unrest and refused to rule out a possible boycott of the Beijing Olympic Games.

"I don't close the door to any option, but I think it's more prudent to reserve my responses to concrete developments in the situation," Sarkozy said, when asked about a possible boycott.

In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, reacting to Sarkozy's remarks on the Olympics, said there was no change in Bush's plans to attend the Games.

"We believe that China should respect minority cultures -- particularly in this case, the Tibetan culture -- and we want to make sure that there is freedom of the press and international access to the area," Perino said.

Beijing had hoped the torch's journey around the world and through China would be a symbol of confident national unity ahead of the Games, which open on Aug. 8. Instead, it is caught in a war of words with the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's spiritual leader, and his supporters.

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Beijing has accused the Nobel Peace Prize-winning monk of masterminding monk-led marches in Lhasa and then an anti-Chinese riot there in mid-March, which authorities say killed 19.

Since then, Tibetan parts of western China have seen ongoing protests, despite a massive influx of police and troops. The Dalai Lama, 72, denies he is behind the unrest and his government-in-exile says 140 people have died in the violence.

China's Communist authorities, which entered Tibet in 1950, have barred foreign journalists from the remote, mountain region, making the competing claims difficult to independently check.

In Lhasa, 13 people were arrested for a March 10 protest, the Tibet Daily reported, the first announcement of consequences for those involved in that largely peaceful march.

Monks yelled "reactionary slogans" and held up a banner of snow-mountain lions, the Tibet Daily said. The snow lion symbolises demands for Tibetan independence and the march came on the anniversary of a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule.

Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch said the arrests of apparently peaceful protesters marked a turn in the security crackdown in Tibet towards political targets.

"This official account gives credence to the fact that the protests in Lhasa started peacefully, and only in subsequent days, after repeated police suppression, did they become violent," said Bequelin.

China's Minister for Public Security, Meng Jianzhu, made an inspection tour of Lhasa and vowed stricter management of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, the Tibet Daily reported.

The riot "not only violated the law, it also seriously violated the fundamental teachings of Tibetan Buddhism", the newspaper quoted Meng as saying, adding the Dalai Lama had long been disqualified as a true Buddhist.

Buddhist monks were involved in protests leading to the March 14 riot, and threw rocks and hot water at police, the Tibet paper said, calling them "loyal running dogs of the Dalai clique".

But China's assertion that protests outside of Lhasa have faded after a massive influx of troops across Tibet and nearby areas was shaken when state media announced the Ganzi unrest.

The ongoing unrest -- and China's response to it -- heightens prospects of worldwide protests as the Olympic torch circles the globe. Protesters sought to disrupt the torch-lighting ceremony in Greece on Monday despite a tight police cordon, a moment that went unmentioned in the Chinese press which instead described the day as "a perfect start on the road to gold".

Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said three of its members had tried to stage Monday's protest, and exiled Tibetans have pledged to demonstrate against the torch.

Human Rights Watch said the torch should not go through Tibet unless China agrees to an independent investigation into the unrest there.

(Additional reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison in Beijing and Krittivas Mukherjee in New Delhi)

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