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China says using restraint to quell Tibet unrest

17/03/2008 - 13:38

By Chris Buckley and Lindsay Beck

BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Monday it had shown greatrestraint in the face of violent protests by Tibetans, which itsaid were orchestrated by followers of the Dalai Lama seekingto wreck the Beijing Olympics in August.

But even as the governor of Tibet said no guns were usedagainst protesters in Lhasa, troops poured into neighbouringareas to enforce control as the regional capital counted downto a midnight deadline for protesters to give up.

"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.

The continued tensions ensured the violence of the pastweek in Tibet would hang over the country no matter what theresolution, with foreign protests, pleas for leniency andChina's crackdown weighing uncomfortably on the build-up to theGames.

But Russia said it hoped China would do what was necessaryto curtail "unlawful actions". A brief Russian Foreign Ministrystatement made no criticism of Beijing.

Tibet governor Qiangba Puncog said the protests wereignited by supporters of the exiled Dalai Lama just for thatend.

"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," he said.

The Dalai Lama has said he supports the Beijing Games andhas outright rejected the Chinese claims about his role.

He fled Tibet after a failed uprising against Chinese rulein 1959 and set up a government-in-exile in Dharamsala, northIndia. Beijing reviles him as a separatist but he says he wantsonly real autonomy for the region, which Communist troopsentered in 1950. The last major rioting in Tibet was in 1989.

PROTESTS FLARE

An ethnic Tibetan in Sichuan's Aba prefecture said freshprotests also flared near two Tibetan schools on Monday, withhundreds of students facing off against police and troops.

About 40 students from a high school for Tibetans inMaertang county, Aba, were beaten and arrested for protesting,the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights andDemocracy later said. Repeated calls to the school wentunanswered.

The resident, who asked not be identified, also said 18people, including Buddhist monks and students, were killed whentroops opened fire with guns on Sunday. Earlier a policeman wasburnt to death, he said. His account could not be immediatelyverified.

Another Tibetan said the area was tense and few dared goout.

"There was talk that hundreds of nuns protested too, butwhen you're locked up at home, who can tell?" he said. He alsosaid a dozen or more people died in the violence on Sunday.

Exiled representatives of Tibet in Dharamsala on Sunday putthe protest death toll at 80.

But Qiangba Puncog said only 13 "innocent civilians" hadbeen killed and dozens of security personnel injured in Lhasawhen several days of monk-led protests broadened into riots inwhich houses and 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. Tear gasand water cannon were used to quell the region's worst protestsin nearly two decades, he said.

He said three fleeing rioters had jumped from roofs, butgave no other details about the fate of protesters possiblykilled or arrested.

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

A member of the People's Armed Police was beatenunconscious by a mob, one of whom then used a knife to carveout a chunk of flesh the size of a fist, said Qiangba Puncog. Apasser-by was burnt alive after petrol was poured over him, healso said.

MIDNIGHT DEADLINE

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

Foreign reporters are barred from travelling to Tibetwithout official permission and tourists have been asked toleave. Over a dozen Hong Kong journalists were forced out ofLhasa on Monday after being accused of illegal reporting.

The Tibetan "government-in-exile" in northern India saidarmed police were carrying out house-to-house searches in Lhasaand had arrested former "political prisoners" in the clampdown.

In Aba, two ethnic Tibetans said hundreds of People'sLiberation Army vehicles moved in overnight after unrest inwhich police said a crowd of protesters had hurled petrolbombs, torching a police station and a market.

Reuters reporters also saw convoys of troops moving throughSichuan province towards its borderlands with Tibet. Soldierspatrolled the streets of Kangding, the main town of Sichuan'sheavily Tibetan western side.

(Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in Sichuan, BenjaminKang Lim and Guo Shipeng in Beijing, Jonathan Allen inDharamsala and Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow; Editing by NickMacfie and Alex Richardson)


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