BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese security forces sealed off parts of Lhasa on Saturday and Tibet’s government-in-exile said it was investigating reports of fresh protests, weeks after the city was shaken by an anti-government riot.
The reports coincided with a visit by a group of diplomats, who were led on a closely guarded tour of the city that has been at the heart of unrest throughout China’s ethnic Tibetan regions just months before the opening of the Beijing Olympics.
“We don’t know how many people, but it seems it’s quite a lot of people,” Tenzin Taklha, a spokesman for the Dalai Lama said of the events in Lhasa. “I think it’s timed with the visit of the diplomats.”
The London-based International Campaign for Tibet said it had heard from three sources that security forces had surrounded Lhasa’s main temples, Jokhang and Ramoche.
“The whole area has been shut down,” said the group’s spokeswoman, Kate Saunders.
“I don’t know what form the protest took. I think people in Lhasa may have been aware of the diplomats’ visit, just as they were aware of the journalists’ visit,” she said.
Earlier this week, the government took select foreign media to Lhasa to highlight the wreckage and give the impression that the city was returning to normal, but the plan backfired when about 30 monks at Jokhang stormed an official news briefing.
The monks complained about a lack of religious freedom and voiced support for the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism who lives in exile and who China accuses of masterminding the unrest.
The trouble in the remote, mountain region that China’s Communist troops entered in 1950 began with a series of peaceful, monk-led protests that culminated in a riot in Lhasa on March 14. Protests have since hit other Tibetan areas of China.
On Saturday, China offered to pay compensation to the families of the 18 civilians it says died in the Lhasa violence. The Dalai Lama’s representatives, which deny he is orchestrating the demonstrations, say the death toll is closer to 140.
The government does not permit free access to the areas, making the reports difficult to check. Chinese media has portrayed the violence on March 14 as a riot by a Tibetan mob beating up innocent people, many of them ethnic Chinese.
Their families would each receive 200,000 yuan ($28,530), a notice from Tibet’s regional government said.
“Measures are to be taken to help people repair their homes and shops damaged in the unrest or to build new ones,” the state-run Xinhua news agency quoted it as saying.
Pressure also grew from abroad for China to respect human rights in its response to the unrest, with U.S. President George W. Bush calling on Chinese leaders to talk to representatives of the Dalai Lama.
The rash of anti-Chinese protests, and China’s response, have become a focus of global concern months before the Olympics. Beijing hopes the Games that start in August will be a chance to showcase the world’s fourth biggest economy.
Since the unrest, China has been on a propaganda offensive, attacking foreign media for biased reporting, quoting Buddhist clergy condemning the riots and highlighting the material gains the ruling Communist Party has brought to Tibet.
At a news conference in Delhi on Saturday, the Dalai Lama accused Beijing of pumping out propaganda that exaggerated Tibetan violence while playing down the harshness of the Chinese reaction. “Some respected, neutral people should go (to Tibet), investigate thoroughly with complete freedom,” he said.
China offered diplomats from a dozen countries a closely monitored 21-hour tour of Lhasa, a Western embassy representative said. Two countries declined the invitation.
A U.S. diplomat on the tour urged the Chinese government to grant the media and foreign envoys more access to Tibet.
“The trip was heavily scheduled, and neither the U.S. nor other participants were able to deviate from the official itinerary,” the embassy said in a statement.
Bush urged China to exercise restraint and the Chinese government, led by President and Communist Party chief Hu Jintao, to meet the Dalai Lama’ representatives.
European Union foreign ministers also urged China on Saturday to hold a dialogue on Tibetan cultural and religious rights. But they avoided linking the issue to the Olympics after public differences over whether to boycott the opening ceremony.
China has said it is open to discussions as long as the Dalai Lama stops supporting Tibet and Taiwan independence, and ends his support for the protests and anti-Olympics activities.
The Nobel Peace Prize-winning monk says he only wants greater autonomy for Tibet within China.
Underscoring U.S. concerns, the first senior U.S. official scheduled to meet Chinese leaders since the protests erupted this month, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, will raise Tibet in Beijing next week, a treasury official said.
On Sunday, the Olympic flame will be handed to Chinese Games organisers in Athens, and Tibetan exiles have vowed to stage protests. Activists disrupted the torch-lighting ceremony earlier this week. The torch is due to arrive in Beijing on Monday.
($1 = 7.011 yuan)
Additional reporting Randall Mikkelsen in Washington and Jonathan Allen in New Delhi