March 17, 2008 / 9:45 AM / 11 years ago

China says using restraint to quell Tibet unrest

(Adds analyst, Russia quotes, paragraphs 3 and 5)

By Chris Buckley and Lindsay Beck

BEIJING, March 17 (Reuters) - China said on Monday it had shown great restraint in the face of violent protests by Tibetans, which it said were orchestrated by followers of the Dalai Lama seeking to wreck the Beijing Olympics in August.

But even as the governor of Tibet said no guns were used against protesters in Lhasa, troops poured into neighbouring areas to enforce control as the regional capital counted down to a midnight deadline for protesters to give up.

"If the Tibetans in Lhasa take to the streets again in large numbers and really challenge the Chinese authorities, I think we’ll see a very harsh crackdown," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a political scientist at University of Michigan.

The continued tensions ensured the violence of the past week in Tibet would hang over the country no matter what the resolution, with foreign protests, pleas for leniency and China’s crackdown weighing uncomfortably on the build-up to the Games.

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

Tibet governor Qiangba Puncog said the protests were ignited by supporters of the exiled Dalai Lama just for that end.

"This time a tiny handful of separatists and lawless elements engaged in extreme acts with the goal of generating even more publicity to wreck stability during this crucial period of the Olympic Games — over 18 years of hard-won stability," he said.

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

He fled Tibet after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959 and set up a government-in-exile in Dharamsala, north India. Beijing reviles him as a separatist but he says he wants only real autonomy for the region, which Communist troops entered in 1950. The last major rioting in Tibet was in 1989.

PROTESTS FLARE

An ethnic Tibetan in Sichuan’s Aba prefecture said fresh protests also flared near two Tibetan schools on Monday, with hundreds of students facing off against police and troops.

About 40 students from a high school for Tibetans in Maertang county, Aba, were beaten and arrested for protesting, the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy later said. Repeated calls to the school went unanswered.

The resident, who asked not be identified, also said 18 people, including Buddhist monks and students, were killed when troops opened fire with guns on Sunday. Earlier a policeman was burnt to death, he said. His account could not be immediately verified.

Another Tibetan said the area was tense and few dared go out.

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

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

But Qiangba Puncog said only 13 "innocent civilians" had been killed and dozens of security personnel injured in Lhasa when several days of monk-led protests broadened into riots in which houses and shops were burned and looted on Friday.

"I can say with all responsibility we did not use lethal weapons, including opening fire," he said in Beijing. Tear gas and water cannon were used to quell the region’s worst protests in nearly two decades, he said.

He said three fleeing rioters had jumped from roofs, but gave no other details about the fate of protesters possibly killed or arrested.

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

A member of the People’s Armed Police was beaten unconscious by a mob, one of whom then used a knife to carve out a chunk of flesh the size of a fist, said Qiangba Puncog. A passer-by was burnt alive after petrol was poured over him, he also said.

MIDNIGHT DEADLINE

Residents contacted in Lhasa said the city was under tight police watch ahead of a Monday midnight deadline for protesters to give themselves up.

Foreign reporters are barred from travelling to Tibet without official permission and tourists have been asked to leave. Over a dozen Hong Kong journalists were forced out of Lhasa on Monday after being accused of illegal reporting.

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

In Aba, two ethnic Tibetans said hundreds of People’s Liberation Army vehicles moved in overnight after unrest in which police said a crowd of protesters had hurled petrol bombs, torching a police station and a market.

Reuters reporters also saw convoys of troops moving through Sichuan province towards its borderlands with Tibet. Soldiers patrolled the streets of Kangding, the main town of Sichuan’s heavily Tibetan western side. (Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in Sichuan, Benjamin Kang Lim and Guo Shipeng in Beijing, Jonathan Allen in Dharamsala and Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson)





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