BEIJING (Reuters) - China vowed strict security for the Olympic torch relay through restive Tibet on Monday as protesters tried to disrupt the torch lighting in Greece, clouding Beijing’s hopes of the relay symbolizing national unity.
Unidentified demonstrators tried to interrupt the torch-lighting ceremony while the Beijing Games organizing chief was speaking. The protesters were quickly detained. Chinese state media made no mention of the brief incident.
Beijing has stepped up its drive to rally support for the Games in response to international attention on Tibet. But Monday’s protest in Greece was a sign of China’s challenges to come as the torch circles the globe.
China blames the recent unrest on the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual leader.
“The political monk’s statement of supporting the Beijing Olympic Games has been proven a lie; his followers boycotted the torch relay and resorted to violence in Lhasa and elsewhere,” the official Xinhua news agency said of the Dalai Lama.
The government has also sought to contain dissent elsewhere.
On Monday, a Chinese court sentenced an unemployed factory worker to five years in jail on charges of inciting subversion.
Yang Chunlin’s sister said he was jailed because of essays he posted online that were critical of China’s parliament and the ruling Communist Party.
The petition that mentioned the Olympics touched a nerve in Beijing where officials hope the Games will showcase economic prosperity and social unity.
China alleges the exiled Dalai Lama conspired to wreck the Games and masterminded the wave of protests that began with peaceful rallies in Tibet’s capital Lhasa on March 10, the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
Five days later, the marches erupted into a riot in Lhasa that China says killed 19.
The Tibetan government-in-exile in India raised its death toll in the clashes to 130 on Monday. China has barred foreign journalists from Tibet and surrounding areas, making independent verification of the reports difficult.
Police spokeswoman Shan Huimin said five people had been detained in Lhasa in relation to arson during the riot. She said three female Tibetans in their twenties faced arson charges and had confessed their crimes. In the case of the other two, the investigation was still ongoing and the charges unspecified.
“These two arson cases once again show the March 14 incident was not a peaceful demonstration or a peaceful protest. It was entirely a serious violent incident,” she told a news conference.
Since the Lhasa unrest, demonstrations have flared throughout ethnic Tibetan parts of China, leading to violence.
The Dalai Lama rejects China’s claim that he is behind the protests and says he does not oppose Beijing’s Games.
When the Olympic flame arrives in Beijing on March 31, before embarking on its journey around the world, a second torch will be lit and taken to Tibet for an attempt to take it up Mount Everest, at 8,848 meters (29,030 ft) above sea level, in May.
But the turmoil threatens to overshadow the torch’s journey to the world’s highest peak.
A Tibet sports official told a newspaper that the Everest climb was certain to go ahead under strict security.
“The region’s torch relay leadership team will closely coordinate and cooperate with all concerned units, taking very seriously and cooperating with security and protection work, and strictly guarding against disturbances and sabotage by the Dalai clique,” the unnamed official told the state-run Tibet Daily.
Overseas advocates of Tibetan independence have said they will seek to protest against the Olympics, and especially against the torch relay through the troubled region.
But in a boost to Beijing, Germany’s Olympic Committee said it has decided against any boycott of the Games, though it expressed concerns about the violence in Tibet.
In a departure from the government line, Bao Tong, the most senior Chinese official ousted over the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, said the Dalai Lama was the “only Tibetan leader with the hope of presiding over a reconciliation agreement”.
“Only if the central (government) sits down for dialogue with the Dalai Lama and shows great wisdom, great decisiveness and great boldness of vision, the Lhasa incident can be handled well,” Bao wrote in a statement e-mailed to Reuters.
On Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for an end to the violence in Tibet, and said France would be willing to facilitate talks between China and the Dalai Lama’s envoys.
China has invested huge amounts of money and political capital to make the 2008 Summer Olympics a showpiece of the country’s prosperity and confidence. It has warned critics and protesters not to disrupt the event.
But two overseas groups reported ongoing protests in Tibetan enclaves of China over the weekend, in Qinghai and Gansu provinces, contradicting government claims that the areas have been quiet since last Thursday.
In Aba, an area of Sichuan where the government said last week police opened fire on protesters, Xinhua reported schools were back in session after a week’s suspension due to the unrest, and were carrying out “patriotic education activities”.
Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim in Beijing and Karolos Grohmann in Athens