MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Chinese crackdown in Tibet has killed at least 209 anti-government protesters and turned the mountainous province into a virtual prison, the speaker of the self-proclaimed Tibetan parliament-in-exile said on Friday.
“According to information which we checked and double- checked, the latest number of people killed is 209,” said Karma Chophel, speaker of the Tibetan parliament which sits in the northern Indian town of Dharasalam.
The Tibet delegation made the statement during a news briefing in Moscow before flying to the Buddhist republic of Kalmykia in southern Russia for a week-long cultural visit.
The Chinese authorities say that 19 people died in rioting which flared in the Tibetan capital Lhasa on March 14-15.
They accuse the Dalai Lama, the exiled Buddhist spiritual leader revered by most Tibetans, of instigating the unrest to upset the Olympic Games in August in Beijing. The Dalai Lama has denied that charge.
Human rights group Amnesty International this week estimated that 1,000 people are being held in Tibet without charge, although the Tibetan delegation on Friday said that over 5,000 people had been arrested since the initial violence.
China has dismissed the Amnesty report as lacking credibility. It is not possible to verify the Tibetan information independently.
Chophel said that a virtual blackout on information from Tibet made it very difficult to collect data, but that the exiled Tibetans were confident their sources were accurate.
Lhasa is remote, high in the mountains and barred to foreign journalists without official permission.
A selected group of reporters was taken there on Friday accompanied by officials to see an Olympic torch relay but the city remains off limits to free reporting.
“According to the little information we can get, we believe there has been a lot of killing and torture in jails,” Chophel said.
The authorities have closed the borders around Tibet, arrested people seen using mobile phones and forced monks to denounce the Dalai Lama, Chophel said.
“Without any exaggeration we can say that the whole of Tibet has been turned into a big jail,” he said.
“Even foodstuff and water has been difficult to get through and many of them (monks) have died of starvation.”
Chinese soldiers marched into Tibet in 1950. The Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising.
Reporting by James Kilner; writing by Conor Sweeney, editing by Mark Trevelyan