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Tibet unrest deepens, with violence and rioting

Tibetans threw stones at Chinese troops and set fire to buildings Friday.

By Christopher Johnson / March 14, 2008

An overturned car burns in Lhasa, Tibet March 14, 2008. Protesters in Tibet's capital burnt shops and vehicles and yelled for independence on Friday as the region was hit by protests, prompting the Dalai Lama to urge Beijing to stop 'brute force'.




Some 1,500 Tibetans engaged in street fighting with several hundred armed police as unrest intensified in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, according to a group of foreign backpackers who witnessed rioting Friday in which protesters targeted Han Chinese and Muslims known as Hui.

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"An empty PLA [People's Liberation Army] convoy pulled through" Beijing Street, the main thoroughfare just north of Barkhor Square in central Lhasa, said Ken on his "kadfly" blog. He, along with others in his group who asked to be identified only by their first name, sent out reports on e-mail and by phone throughout the day. "Maybe 100 meters farther, there was a massive crowd of Tibetans surrounding a narrow alleyway. As it turned out, they were throwing stones and hurling abuse at PLA soldiers who were blockading the passage to a monastery. After a minute or two, everyone rushed the PLA blockade and burst through. The soldiers left parts of their riot gear lying around and Tibetans started breaking them."

The unrest this week was triggered Monday by the arrest of monks who had marched from Drepung monastery in western Lhasa toward the Potala Palace, home of the exiled Dalai Llama, to commemorate the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule. By Tuesday, ordinary Tibetans had joined a street protest outside Sera monastery, demanding that the monks be released. Thursday, reports from Lhasa said Chinese troops were surrounding major monasteries, forcing the monks inside, and by Friday, the protests turned violent.

China, which has long claimed sovereignty over the Tibet autonomous region, blamed the Dalai Llama for "masterminding" the unrest. A spokesman for the spiritual leader responded that the charge was "absolutely baseless." The Dalai Llama appealed to Chinese officials to stop using force and asked Tibetans to avoid violence. The United States issued a statement Friday asking China to "respect" Tibetan culture and said that "[we] regret the tensions between the ethnic groups and Beijing."

In Lhasa, the group of backpackers said that the atmosphere Friday morning had been upbeat, but that the mood had turned ugly by the afternoon.

"The crowds support the protesters by howling like wolves," said Paul by phone. "Everyone is on the streets. They want the arrested monks to be released. People are very afraid of Chinese undercover police. People are tired of being followed and observed by police. Even tourists. The massive observation of police, and the show of force over the last several days, didn't seem to work out."

Pelted with stones, the police retreated, he said.

Rioters then went on a rampage, setting fire to several buildings. "They were civilians, not monks," said Paul.

Black smoke rose over Lhasa. Rioters smashed windows along Beijing Street at restaurants and shops – including ones that are popular with Tibetans and foreigners who sympathize with their plight. They overturned cars on the street, and in front of Jokhand temple, a 1,400-year old World Heritage Site popular with Tibetan pilgrims.