China to meet Dalai Lama aides amid Tibet tension

China is to hold talks with envoys of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism whom it blames for a wave of unrest, state media reported on Friday, as the Olympic flame arrived in Japan.

The move comes after concerted pressure from the West on China to talk to the Dalai Lama and marks the first serious step to defuse tensions aside from coming down hard on protesters and lambasting Tibetans’ spiritual leader.

Beijing has stepped up its vilification of the Dalai Lama since anti-government protests hit Tibet and rippled across ethnic Tibetan parts of China in the past weeks.

”In view of the requests repeatedly made by the Dalai side for resuming talks, the relevant department of the central government will have contact and consultation with the Dalai’s private representative in the coming days,” the official Xinhua news agency quoted an unnamed official as saying.

An envoy to the Dalai Lama said on Friday he had received notice of China’s offer to hold talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama.

”We have been told verbally, through private channels, that a meeting has been proposed,” Dalai Lama envoy Kelsang Gyaltsen told Germany’s Deutsche Welle broadcaster.

”We neither know the date, the location, nor the topics that must be addressed at the meeting,” he added, speaking in German.

China denounces the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet after a failed 1959 uprising against Communist rule, as a traitor and has accused him of orchestrating the unrest, a charge the 72-year-old Nobel laureate denies.

But Tibet has become a flashpoint for anti-China protests that have disrupted the Olympic torch relay around the world and has led to calls for state leaders to boycott the Beijing Games, which open on August 8.

”It is hoped that through contact and consultation, the Dalai side will take credible moves to stop activities aimed at splitting China, stop plotting and inciting violence and stop disrupting and sabotaging the Beijing Olympic Games so as to create conditions for talks,” the official was quoted as saying.

Denunciations

Recent official denunciations of the Dalai Lama had usually referred to the Dalai ”clique”, rather than Dalai ”side”.

The United States and France have urged Beijing to hold talks with the Dalai Lama, while British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said he would meet the Tibetan leader when he visits Britain in May.

France and the United States welcomed the announcement of talks.

”This is a major step. This renewed dialogue carries real hope,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office said in a statement.

The US embassy in Beijing said in a statement that the dialogue would be ”a very positive development”.

The European Commission also backed the talks.

”As far as I understand the Chinese position, the Chinese say they are ready to discuss everything except sovereignty for Tibet,” EC President José Manuel Barroso said.

Reporters were allowed into Tibet on Friday and there was a heavy troop presence lining the road between the capital Lhasa and Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet.

Japan called for calm but braced for trouble with tight security, as low-key protests began ahead of its leg of the torch relay that begins on Saturday in the central city of Nagano, following emotional scenes at other venues.

Nagano police arrested a man carrying a knife near the site of the relay start, Japanese media said on Friday. The man claimed to be a monk and was carrying a document protesting the torch relay, Jiji and Kyodo news agencies said.

The flame is meant to transmit a message of peace and friendship, but its journey has been largely turned into a political event and the torch has been granted the sort of security usually reserved for state leaders.

The flame’s arrival in Nagano was greeted by right-wing activists in trucks roaming the streets, displaying huge Japanese flags and blaring ”go away”.

Pomp and ceremony

In Hanoi, Vietnam state-run radio reported that a US citizen of Vietnamese origin had been expelled on accusations of planning anti-Chinese protests at next week’s Olympics torch relay in Ho Chi Minh City.

Reclusive North Korea, for its part, vowed to ”astonish the world” with pomp, ceremony and safety during its stage of the relay on Monday, Chinese state media reported.

The Olympic torch is supposed to enter Tibet in early May to ascend Mt Everest and is to travel to its capital Lhasa on June 19, legs China has vowed to see through, despite the tensions.

The Dalai Lama says he is seeking meaningful autonomy for the strategic Himalayan border region, but China denounces that as a sham and says he is bent on splitting the country.

The Communist Party boss in Tibet has called the Dalai Lama ”a jackal in Buddhist monk’s robes, an evil spirit with a human face and the heart of a beast”.

But before the protests soured relations, China and envoys of the Dalai Lama had been engaged in a tentative dialogue process, though several rounds since 2002 had yielded little progress. – Reuters

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