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.
"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.
"There are no police or officials to be seen in the streets anymore," said Paul. "Several Chinese-looking persons were beaten very badly, and exposed to heavy stone-throwing."
Ken, an ethnic Chinese raised in the West, ran to help a beaten Chinese man bleeding in the street. "When the Tibetans saw my Chinese face, they raised stones to throw at me. Then when I told them where I was from, they smiled and said 'You're OK'."
Paul said he intervened to stop Tibetans from beating up innocent Chinese. "It's anarchy everywhere outside. Police cars smashed. No police in central Lhasa. I met a tourist guy with a camera, he took pictures and film. I gotta go. I have to get inside now. They expect the army to move in soon."
Ken later wrote on his blog: "We also saw a monk (or at least someone dressed like one) direct an attack on a store or restaurant with a small Chinese flag flying from it."
Reaching a hotel after witnessing these attacks, they were moved out of rooms facing the street to safer quarters at the back. They went on the roof to see fires and plumes of smoke around Lhasa, normally known as the sunniest city in China. Hotel staff later closed off the roof, and stopped taking calls from overseas.
"We are locked off in the hotel," said Paul via cellphone. "There are rumors that 13 arrested monks have been killed."
He stayed inside his hotel Friday night with the group, but reported that he heard gunfire and explosions into Saturday morning.
With nowhere to go, Ken tried to upload photos on his blog. "A Chinese guy came into the Internet cafe at the hotel. He wasn't in uniform, but it was clear that he was an undercover police agent. He turned off the computers and gave me a real dirty look, like he knew what we were doing."
Paul went into the reception at the front of the hotel to get a look out the window at the street. "The riot is still going on out there. It's getting worse and worse.
According to Ken, PLA troops moved in around 8:30 p.m., "with huge armored transport trucks and put out some of the fires. A new fire, however, which is taller than any building around, has just been started recently."
Paul described the vehicles as having "big fat tear-gas guns and big fat cameras on it, versus Tibetans with machetes and sticks."
With military vehicles now in the streets, Paul went to the roof and saw fires burning in the north of the city. "Tibetans are huddled around on roofs across the city, for safety and to watch what is happening below."
Later, a European traveler joined the group holed up in the hotel room. He claimed to have seen two dead Tibetans and said that he saw Tibetans attack Muslims and Chinese randomly. "They were aiming to kill Muslims and Chinese for a free Tibet," he said.
When pressed for details, he said he saw the bodies at 7 p.m., covered with sheets, opposite a small hospital in the old section of Lhasa, in the Muslim quarter east of the hotel. He assumed they were Tibetans because they were being carried away by Tibetans into a four-wheel-drive vehicle. They brought one body into a hospital.
The European traveler said he was hiding out with a Tibetan family but eventually got kicked out when he disagreed with their sentiment that all Chinese and Muslims should be removed from Tibet. A monk who was with the family asked him to leave, to avoid confrontation