China sets deadline for Tibetan rioters

China set a ”surrender deadline”, listed deaths and showed the first extensive television footage of rioting in Lhasa on Saturday, signalling a crackdown after the worst unrest in Tibet for two decades.

But a source close to the Tibetan self-proclaimed government-in-exile suggested China’s official death toll of 10, which comes just months before the Beijing Olympics, may not tell the full story.

Xinhua news agency said the 10 ”innocent civilians” died in fires that accompanied bitter clashes in the remote mountain capital on Friday. It said no foreigners died but gave few other details, and the report could not be verified.

The source close to the Tibetan exile administration in India said at least five Tibetan protesters were shot dead by troops, and other groups supporting Tibetan independence have claimed many more may have died.

”Law-enforcement authorities in China’s Tibet autonomous region issued a notice on Saturday … demanding the lawbreakers to give themselves in by Monday midnight, and promised that mitigation and leniency would be given to those who surrender,” Xinhua said.

China has accused followers of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, of masterminding the rioting, which has scarred its image of national harmony in the build-up to the Beijing Olympics and already sparked talk of a boycott. The Olympic torch is to arrive in Lhasa in a matter of weeks.

Tibetan crowds in the remote mountain city attacked government offices, burnt vehicles and shops and threw stones at police on Friday in bloody confrontations that left many injured.

A Reuters picture showed a protester setting fire to bicycles and a Chinese national flag. Another depicted security personnel shielding themselves against rocks hurled by protesters. Television footage showed plumes of smoke rising over Lhasa and individual buildings ablaze.

Qiangba Puncog, chairperson of the Tibet autonomous regional government, told reporters in Beijing that Tibetan authorities had not fired any shots to quell the violence in Lhasa, which Xinhua said had ”reverted to calm”.

But the International Campaign for Tibet, a group that supports demands for Tibetan autonomy, cited unconfirmed reports of scores of Tibetans killed and hundreds of local university students arrested. John Ackerly of the group said in an emailed statement he feared ”hundreds of Tibetans have been arrested and are being interrogated and tortured”.

Residents of Lhasa waited anxiously in homes and closed shops on Saturday, wondering if the day would bring fresh confrontation.

”It’s quite tense still,” said one hostel manager who requested anonymity, as did other residents spoken to. ”We don’t dare go outside, so I can’t tell you what’s happening,” said one.

Xinhua said its reporters in Lhasa on Friday saw many rioters ”carrying backpacks filled with stones and bottles of inflammable liquids, some holding iron bars, wooden sticks and long knives, a sign that the crowd came fully prepared and meant harm”.

No change of policy

The riots have emerged from a volatile mix of pre-Olympics protests, diplomatic friction over Tibet and local discontent with the harsh ways of the region’s party leadership that has heated up in past months.

China has said the Dalai Lama engineered what were the biggest protests in the predominantly Buddhist Himalayan region since 1989, a claim he quickly denied.

China has chided the leaders of the United States and especially Germany in past months for hosting the Dalai Lama, saying such acts boost what they call his ”separatist” goals. It has also urged India to stop protests there by exiled Tibetans.

The hard-line Communist Party boss of Tibet, Zhang Qingli, formerly served in Xinjiang, the far western region where China has refined tough controls on restive Uighur Muslims.

While it was uncertain whether the clashes would flare up again over the weekend, Beijing has already made clear it saw no reason to change its policies in Tibet, where many locals resent the presence of the Han Chinese, China’s biggest ethnic group.

”We are fully capable of maintaining the social stability of Tibet,” Xinhua quoted an official as saying in a statement repeated across Chinese state media on Saturday.

China may not respond as harshly as it did to the 1989 protests in Tibet, when now President Hu Jintao was Communist Party boss of the region, but it will not show any softness either, said Drew Thompson, a China expert at the Nixon Centre in Washington.

Already the eruption of popular anger at China’s presence in Tibet has become an international issue likely to trouble Beijing’s preparations for the Olympics. The Games should be boycotted if Beijing mishandles the protests, Hollywood actor and Tibetan activist Richard Gere said. — Reuters

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