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China insists used massive restraint on Tibet riots

17/03/2008 - 7:35

By Chris Buckley and Lindsay Beck

BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Monday it had shownmassive restraint in the face of violent protests by Tibetans,which it said were orchestrated by followers of the Dalai Lamato wreck the Beijing Olympics in August.

But even as the governor of Tibet told reporters in Beijingthat no lethal weapons had been used against protesters in thecapital, Lhasa, troops poured into neighbouring provinces toquell copycat protests and riots that erupted over the weekend.

A resident in Sichuan's Aba prefecture said fresh protestsflared in two Tibetan schools on Monday, with hundreds ofstudents from each facing off against police and troops.

The resident, who declined to be identified, said 18people, including Buddhist monks and students, were killed whentroops opened fire with guns on Sunday. Earlier a policeman wasburnt to death.

His account could not be immediately verified.

Exiled representatives of Tibet in Dharamsala, India, onSunday put the death toll from last week's protests in Lhasa at80.

But Qiangba Puncog, the government chief of the Himalayanregion, said that only 13 "innocent civilians" had been killedand dozens of security personnel injured in Lhasa when severaldays of monk-led protests broadened into riots in which housesand shops were burned and looted on Friday.

"I can say with all responsibility we did not use lethalweapons, including opening fire," he said in Beijing, addingthat only tear gas and water cannon had been used to deal withthe region's worst protests in nearly two decades.

The governor said the unrest was planned and organised by"external and domestic forces" of the "Dalai clique", referringto Tibetan Buddhists' exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

"This time a tiny handful of separatists and lawlesselements engaged in extreme acts with the goal of generatingeven more publicity to wreck stability during this crucialperiod of the Olympic Games -- over 18 years of hard-wonstability."

Peng Xiaobo, who sells clothes in Lhasa, told statetelevision seven family members were forced to jump from anupper floor when a mob set his ground-floor shop on fire.

His uncle and cousin were burned to death, while his wifesuffered serious injuries, CCTV said.

"My cousin only turned 18 in December. She didn't dare jumpwhen the stairs below were burning," Peng said in tears.

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet after a failed uprising againstChinese rule in 1959 and set up a government-in-exile inDharamsala. Beijing reviles him as a separatist though he sayshe only wants more autonomy for the region, which Communisttroops entered in 1950. The last major rioting in Tibet was in1989.

MIDNIGHT DEADLINE

Tibet is one of several potential flashpoints for theruling Communist party at a time of heightened attention onChina ahead of the Olympic Games.

The government is concerned about the effect of inflationand wealth gaps on social stability after years of breakneckeconomic growth, and this month it said it had foiled two plotshatched by the members of the Muslim Uighur population in thenorthwestern region of Xinjiang, including an attempt todisrupt the Olympics.

Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled World UighurCongress, says that there was a heavier police presence inHetian, Kashgar and other parts of Xinjiang.

"Now, if you are a group of more than three or four, youcan't congregate together," he said by telephone.

Residents contacted in Lhasa said the city was under tightpolice watch ahead of a Monday midnight deadline for protestersto give themselves up. Qiangba Puncog said calm was returning.

Foreign reporters are barred from travelling to Tibetwithout official permission and tourists have been asked toleave.

A Reuters reporter in Sichuan said he saw columns of trucksfilled with armed troops on the roads.

In the Aba region, two ethnic Tibetans said hundreds ofPeople's Liberation Army vehicles moved in overnight afterunrest in which police said a crowd of protesters had hurledpetrol bombs, torching a police station and a market.

"They've been driving through all night. It's just tailingoff now," the man said.

In Machu in the province of Gansu, a crowd of 300-400carried pictures of the Dalai Lama as they marched ongovernment buildings, breaking windows and doors and settingfire to Chinese shops and businesses, the Free Tibet Campaignsaid.

The London-based group said 100 Tibetan students staged asit-in at a university in Gansu's capital, Lanzhou, a worry fora country with a history of student unrest, notably theTiananmen Square protests of 1989 that ended in a militarycrackdown.

"If the Tibetans in Lhasa take to the streets again inlarge numbers and really challenge the Chinese authorities, Ithink we'll see a very harsh crackdown," said KennethLieberthal, a political scientist at University of Michigan.

Speaking from his home in India's Himalayan foothills onSunday, the Dalai Lama called for an investigation into what hecalled cultural genocide in Tibet.

Xinhua news agency quoted Tibetan officials as saying theNobel peace laureate's charge was "downright nonsense" andtrumpeted China's development policies in Tibet. Critics saythose policies favour Han Chinese migration to the region,contributing to a huge wealth gap between Chinese and Tibetans.

(Additional reporting by John Ruwitch; Editing by NickMacfie and Jeremy Laurence)


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