Report: 2 dead in Tibet riots
China blames Dalai Lama as police fire on crowds in Lhasa led by monks
MSNBC News Services
updated 1:51 p.m. ET, Fri., March. 14, 2008
BEIJING – Protests led by Buddhist monks against Chinese rule in Tibet turned violent Friday, with shops and vehicles torched and gunshots echoing in the streets of the ancient capital, Lhasa.
A radio report said two people had been killed, while China blamed the disturbances on followers of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled Buddhist leader.
The Dalai Lama on Friday called the demonstrations “a manifestation of the deep-rooted resentment of the Tibetan people” and called upon China to stop using force during protests. In a statement, the Dalai Lama said he was “deeply concerned over the situation that has been developing in Tibet following peaceful protests.”
The largest demonstrations in nearly two decades against Beijing’s 57-year-rule over Tibet come at a critically sensitive time for China as it attempts to portray a unified and prosperous nation ahead of the Olympic Games in August.
U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia said troops using both live ammunition and tear gas fired on crowds torching vehicles and Chinese-owned shops in the center of the ancient capital of Lhasa. It said two people were killed, while other reports put the death toll higher but gave no figures.
The U.S. State Department urged Chinese leaders to engage in dialogue with the Dalai Lama. The European Union also called on China to show restraint.
The protests that began on Monday’s anniversary of a 1959 uprising against Chinese rule were initially led by hundreds of Buddhist monks — but then attracted large numbers of ordinary Tibetans. They were also spreading to Tibetan areas outside Lhasa, a city of about 250,000 permanent residents, not including large numbers of soldiers and members of the paramilitary People’s Armed Police.
Witnesses reported hearing gunfire and seeing vehicles in flames in the city’s main Barkor shopping district in the center of Lhasa. Crowds hurled rocks at security forces and at restaurant and hotel windows.
“It was chaos everywhere. I could see fires, smoke, cars and motorcycles burning,” said a Tibetan guide who spoke on condition his name not be used, fearing retaliation by authorities. He said the whole road in the main Barkor shopping area surrounding the Jokhang temple “seemed to be on fire.”
The guide said armed police in riot gear backed by armored vehicles were blocking major intersections in the city center, along with the broad square in front of the Potala, the former winter home of the Dalai Lama.
“As I approached Potala Square, I heard cannon fire, louder than rifles. Others told me police were firing tear gas along Beijing Zhonglu, west of the Potala,” he said.
Up to 400 protesters, including students, had gathered around a market near the Jokhang temple early on Friday and were confronted by about 1,000 police, according to a witness cited by Matt Whitticase of the Free Tibet Campaign in London.
Four police were injured, and another protest break out near the Potala Palace, Whitticase added.
Shops were set on fire along two main streets surrounding the Jokhang temple, Ramoche monastery, and the city’s main Chomsigkang market, sending out heavy smoke.
A Western traveler using the name “John” told BBC World television that police had attacked monks near monasteries and said he saw military convoys moving into Lhasa carrying heavily armed troops.
In a terse report, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said people had been hospitalized with injuries and vehicles and shops torched, but gave few details.
Tensions in the Tibetan capital have risen in recent days as the city’s three biggest monasteries were sealed off by thousands of soldiers and police in a government crackdown, the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia reported Friday.
The U.S. Embassy e-mailed an advisory to Americans warning them to stay away from Lhasa. The embassy said it had “received firsthand reports from American citizens in the city who report gunfire and other indications of violence.”
In Washington, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, “Beijing needs to respect Tibetan culture. Needs to respect multi-ethnicity in their society. We regret the tensions between the ethnic groups and Beijing. The president has said consistently that Beijing needs to have a dialogue with the Dalai Lama.”
European Union leaders appealed to China to show restraint, and France’s foreign minister said Paris was keeping its options open on whether to take further measures, possibly relating to the Olympics.
Hotels in Lhasa were placed under lockdown at noon, said a hotel worker in the city.
“No one has been allowed to leave the hotel, as protesters on Beijing Dong Road have turned violent … we can hear shouting and a loud commotion outside, but cannot even look outside the windows to see what is happening outside, because they will throw rocks at us if they see us,” said the worker, who did not want her name used or her hotel identified for fear of harassment by authorities.
It is extremely difficult to get independent verification of events in Tibet since China maintains rigid control over the area. Foreigners need special travel permits, and journalists are rarely granted access except under highly controlled circumstances.
Communist forces invaded Tibet in 1950, hoping to reclaim a part of China’s former empire and command the strategic heights overlooking rival India. In recent decades, China has methodically begun exploiting the region’s timber and mineral wealth.