Tibet tensions high as Olympic torch nears Beijing

Further unrest in Tibet’s capital appeared to have been sparked by attempts by police to carry out security checks, indicating the tension and volatility remaining in Lhasa weeks after a deadly anti-government riot.

It was unclear exactly what occurred in Lhasa on Saturday but a SMS to residents from police said security checks carried out earlier in the day had ”frightened citizens” and caused panic in the city centre.

Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet and Radio Free Asia quoted witnesses as describing people ”running in all directions and shouting”.

It was not clear if the security check was in response to a protest, or if the check itself caused the panic.

”Please obey the law and please follow the rules, don’t create rumours, don’t believe rumours, don’t spread rumours,” read the SMS, which was reprinted by the Free Tibet Campaign and International Campaign for Tibet.

”Severely battle any creation or any spreading of rumours that would upset or frighten people or cause social disorder or illegal criminal behaviour that could damage social stability,” the message read.

The fresh tensions come as China prepares to receive the Olympic flame in its capital Beijing on Monday, for the start of a domestic and international relay that the government hoped would symbolise national unity ahead of Games in August.

Instead, China finds itself deflecting criticism over its policies in Tibet and its response to unrest there, and is facing the prospect of weeks of protests as the Olympic flame circles the globe.

The unrest began with days of peaceful, monk-led protests in Lhasa that spiralled into a citywide riot on March 14 that the government says killed 18 civilians and was masterminded by the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader.

The Dalai Lama, who fled China in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese Communist rule, denies he is behind the unrest, which his representatives say has claimed 140 lives.

Speaking in Laos on Sunday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao repeated the government’s assertion that the Lhasa riot was ”violent and criminal”.

”They have hurt the interests of even Tibetan people,” he told Hong Kong television reporters.

”We hope governments everywhere and the media can approach and assess this matter objectively and justly. The Chinese government has the ability to solve this matter,” Wen said.

Arrests

The protests also spread to ethnic Tibetan areas of China.

In Sichuan province’s Aba county, where police opened fire on protesters a week ago, 26 suspects were detained for their involvement, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Police seized guns, bullets, explosives and knives in Aba’s Kirti monastery, as well as Tibetan flags and banners advocating independence for Tibet, the report said.

The Tibet Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, based in India, gave a different account, saying more than 100 monks from the Kirti monastery were detained and that police raided rooms.

In Gansu province, whose southern, heavily Tibetan areas saw widespread unrest, notices were pasted on walls urging protesters to give themselves up.

The paramilitary People’s Armed Police manned frequent checkpoints in the region, armed with riot shields and clubs and bayonets on their rifles, a sign of ongoing tension in the area.

United States President George Bush has urged China to exercise restraint in its response to the unrest and to meet representatives of the Dalai Lama, against whom Chinese state media has been waging an intense propaganda campaign.

”Dealing with such a person, who can blow hot and cold, the Chinese government has shown the greatest patience,” Xinhua said in a commentary on Sunday. ”It was the Dalai Lama clique that closed the door of dialogue,” it said.

A meeting of European Union foreign ministers also called on Saturday for an end to violence in Tibet and urged dialogue on the region’s religious and cultural rights.

But in a joint text, the bloc avoided reference to the Beijing Games, after a week of public differences over whether to boycott the opening ceremony. – Reuters

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Lindsay Beck
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