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Security turns U.N. in Geneva into ghost town as China's Xi visits

GENEVA (Reuters) - Security blanketed the United Nations’ European headquarters on Wednesday to avoid any risk or embarrassment to visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping, while police swiftly ended a small pro-Tibetan protest on the square outside.

Car parks, meeting rooms and shops were shut and declared off-limits as the U.N. complex largely emptied before Xi’s arrival and many of the roughly 3,000 staff went home early.

A U.N. spokeswoman said employees had been encouraged to work from home because Xi’s 200-strong delegation and an audience of 800 would arrive for his speech just as staff left for the day. It was “logistical, not political”, she said.

Police stopped five activists outside the United Nations as they unfurled a Tibetan flag and signs reading “Arrest Xitler, Free Tibet”. A police spokesman said the protest was unauthorised. An authorised pro-China protest of about 100 people began later.

“This has just happened in Geneva, in the city of human rights, in the city of freedom, and this is very shameful,” said Migmar Dhakyel, spokeswoman for the association of Tibetan Youth in Europe.

Asked about Chinese human rights at a U.N. staff meeting, held in the Human Rights Council chamber, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said it was important to engage all countries on human rights, including China, but it was necessary to be balanced and avoid double standards.

Guterres told reporters that China’s very strong support for multilateralism should be taken into account.

Xi offered a vigorous defence of globalisation at the World Economic Forum on Tuesday, contrasting with the “America First” rhetoric of incoming U.S. president Donald Trump and signalling Beijing’s desire to play a bigger role on the global stage.

The stringent security arrangements in Geneva followed similar nervousness in the Swiss capital Bern, which hosted Xi for a state visit on Sunday and Monday, and where 32 protesters were arrested on Sunday for demonstrating outside a permitted two-hour window for protests.

Switzerland has courted China with a free trade agreement in 2014 and has come a long way from the last state visit in 1999, when demonstrators in Bern tried to throw eggs at the delegation of China’s then-president Jiang Zemin.

Jiang questioned Swiss leaders’ control over their country and remarked that they risked “losing a good friend”.

The only apparent glitch in Xi’s highly choreographed visit was when his train overshot the red carpet on arrival in Lausanne late on Tuesday, forcing the driver to back up several paces to save Switzerland, known for its faultless trains, from an awkward faux pas.

Reporting by Tom Miles, Pierre Albouy and Marina Depetris; Editing by Alison Williams