By Chris Buckley
LHASA, China (Reuters) - Chinese Communist Party officialsin charge of restive Tibet used the passing of the Olympictorch relay through the capital Lhasa on Saturday to defendtheir control and denounce the exiled Dalai Lama.
The torch procession ended under tight security below thetowering Potala palace after having been run for just over twohours before a carefully-selected crowd, some three monthsafter the region was convulsed by anti-Chinese protests.
"Tibet's sky will never change and the red flag with fivestars will forever flutter high above it," Tibet's hardlineCommunist Party boss Zhang Qingli said at a ceremony markingthe end of the two-hour relay through strictly guarded streets.
"We will certainly be able to totally smash the splittistschemes of the Dalai Lama clique," he added, in front of thePotala, traditional seat of the Dalai Lama, the most powerfulfigure in Tibetan Buddhism.
China accuses the exiled Dalai Lama of inciting protestsand riots that erupted in Lhasa and then across wider Tibet inMarch, in a bid to undermine the Beijing Olympics, which openon August 8. The Dalai Lama denies the charges.
The Beijing Games torch has never been far fromcontroversy, and never more so than in its run through thestreets of this 3,650-metre (12,000 feet) high city.
Lhasa was under lockdown with police and troops every fewmetres along the relay streets, closely watching the groups ofresidents chosen to cheer on the torch. Shops were shut.
At the start of the relay, groups of students -- Tibetanand Han Chinese -- waved Olympic banners, the Chinese nationalflag, and the hammer and sickle banner of the ruling CommunistParty.
"We are convinced that the Beijing Olympic Games' torchrelay in Lhasa will further inflame the patriotic spirit of thepeople," Lhasa's Communist Party boss Qin Yizhi said at theopening ceremony, adding it would also help "smash the schemingof the Dalai Lama clique".
The official Xinhua news agency said the torch passedthrough Lhasa "in a joyful and peaceful atmosphere". It nextheads to the neighbouring province of Qinghai, home to manyethnic Tibetans.
Later in the day, shops re-opened and locals spilled on tothe streets. But in the Barkhor neighbourhood of old Lhasa -- aweb of alleys centred on the Jokhang temple -- Tibetanresidents showed little enthusiasm for the relay and spokeflinchingly of the unrest, crackdown and a dearth of businessand jobs.
"It's still very tense... Best not go out at night," saidone Tibetan jewel shop owner. "We're waiting for the touriststo come back, but they're not coming. They're still tooscared."
Outside his doorway passed a flow of Buddhist pilgrims,locals and Chinese tourists -- but in far smaller numbers thanyears past, he said. Many shopfronts were shuttered.
Asked about the relay, another local said, "We have otherthings to think about." She and the shop owner did not wanttheir names used.
In Dharamsala, the northern Indian town where the DalaiLama's government-in-exile in based, a small group ofprotesters from Students for a Free Tibet paraded around thetown's main square.
They performed a street play that showed China trampling onTibet.
For many exiled Tibetans and human rights groups, the Lhasatorch relay serves as a sign of China's overbearing influence.
The officials' fiery comments about the Dalai Lama alsodrew criticism from critics who say China has used the Gamesfor its own political ends.
"Tibet does not need this Cultural Revolution-stylerhetoric," said the London-based Free Tibet Campaign's MattWhitticase by telephone.
"The Chinese government must engage with the Dalai Lama insubstantive talks to lead to a lasting political settlement inTibet," he added.
But for many Chinese, outraged by the March unrest and thenthe protests against China's rule in Tibet that dogged theinternational stage of the torch relay, the Lhasa stop of thetorch was a proud moment of vindication.
"For me as a son of the Chinese people, the Olympic Gamesis a grand event we've always looked forward to," said ZhaLang, a retired ethnic Tibetan official who was among thosecheering on the square under the Potala.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing andAbhishek Madhukar in Dharamsala; Editing by David Fogarty)
(For more stories visit our multimedia website "Road toBeijing" at http://www.reuters.com/news/sports/2008olympics ;and see our blog at http://blogs.reuters.com/china )