China clamps down on unrest as riots spread across Tibet

80 deaths reported in the capital, Lhasa, during major anti-Chinese protests. Buddhist monks take leading role in pro-independence demonstrations

Near a bridge in the centre of Xiahe, where the Labrang monastery is located, a shaven-headed young monk cautiously approached, looking all the time to see if he was in the eyeline of the unmarked police car at the bottom of the street.

"Four people were shot dead by the police," said the monk, crossing his arms across his heart and rolling his eyes back. "There was lots of trouble yesterday, and I'm going back there right now. I have to go."

The 1,200 monks in Labrang are mostly novices, and they are clearly ready for a fight. There was trouble here last October when Chinese riot police cracked down on monks celebrating the award of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama.

Then a group of four teenage monks surrounded us, again watchful for police cars, marked and unmarked, which whizz up and down the narrow, dusty lanes of the town. The novices intersperse their remarks with raised fists. "Yesterday and this morning there was a lot of trouble, big fights. Lots of people, lots of police," said the smallest of the group. They turned and headed into town, alongside groups of pilgrims wearing traditional Tibetan costumes and ordinary citizens seeking to get home and stay out of trouble.

And trouble there is aplenty. Chinese authorities in Tibet said 10 people have been killed in riots in the capital, Lhasa, although Tibetan exile groups say that the figure is nearer 25. Security forces in Tibet had locked down the city after days of fires and rock-throwing, but reports from Lhasa yesterday suggested there had been more violence, and that police on the streets were shooting on sight. Eyewitnesses quoted by the Free Tibet Campaign and ITN said that 80 had died.

The Tibetan protests are taking place just five months before the Olympic Games in Beijing, and the whole world is watching to see how China reacts. Tibetan independence activists have made no secret of their intentions to use the games as a platform for their cause, but Beijing is determined not to let unrest in Tibet affect the games. "Anyone who wants to sabotage the games will get nowhere," Beijing's top official in Tibet, Qiangba Puncog, said.

The riots mark the most significant unrest in Tibet since the late 1980s, when martial law was imposed.

As governments around the world call for a restrained response, China is taking a tough stance. The regional government offered leniency to rioters if they gave themselves up by midnight on Monday and provided information on lawbreakers. "Those who cover up or shelter the lawbreakers will be punished in accordance with the law," the Xinhua news agency said.

The Xiahe riots started as a show of support for the Lhasa demonstrations. On Friday, hundreds of Labrang monks marched through Xiahe holding aloft Tibetan flags, which are banned in China. During the clashes on Saturday morning, 1,000 protesters marched to government offices and smashed windows in public buildings, including the local Public Security Bureau HQ. Residents said police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd and there were 20 arrests.

The clashes at Labrang show how widespread the demonstrations have become. Xiahe is in the mostly Tibetan area of Amdo, part of which is in the Chinese province of Gansu. The Tibetan Autonomous Region only refers to part of Tibet, but nearly three million Tibetans live in neighbouring provinces of China, such as Gansu and Sichuan.

For Tibetans, the borders imposed by Beijing are irrelevant and there have been protests all over this region, according to the Free Tibet Campaign. The fact that Xiahe is in China proper means it is accessible to foreign journalists, while Tibet is largely closed to them.

The town of Xiahe is divided roughly into two halves, on one side the Tibetans, who make up 50 per cent of the population, and on the other side, Chinese of the Han ethnic group that dominates China (40 per cent) and Hui Muslims (10 per cent). Earlier, police set up a road-block halfway along the main street, just past where the Chinese section ends, and the atmosphere was extremely tense .

The Han Chinese and the local Hui Muslims are nervous. In recent days in Lhasa, rioters have turned on Han Chinese settlers, setting fire to their houses and shops. There have been attacks on a mosque in Lhasa. Around 120 riot police in dark green body armour were lined up in four rows on the bridge to the monastery, two rows on each side of the bridge. Monks passed cautiously through the ranks of police near a military truck.

Earlier in the day, about 1,000 Tibetan monks and lay people had performed three circuits around a white stupa, burning incense and offering prayers for the long life of their god-king, the Dalai Lama, and for his safe return to Tibet. The Chinese consider the Dalai Lama, who left Tibet after the failed uprising in 1959, a dangerous separatist. People streamed into the town, and there was a sense of aggression in the air. The town centre was sealed off by a cordon of police, but witnesses said a crowd of 20,000 again moved on public buildings. They raised a Tibetan national flag at a school and the air soon filled with tear gas and smoke from burning vehicles. Police had lost control of the centre.

Labrang is a hugely important site to the branch of Tibetan Buddhism known as the Yellow Hat Sect. It is home to the Living Buddha, who comes third in the Tibetan Buddhist religious hierarchy after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. The road to Xiahe is dotted with Coca-Cola signs in Chinese and Tibetan, and stencilled adverts painted on walls for Chinese telecoms companies, signs of the country's growing affluence. Yesterday the road from Lanzhou was packed with scores of police cars and heavy trucks full of soldiers.

One Tibetan man from Lhasa, with long flowing hair, spoke of conditions in Xiahe. "There were two hours of chaos. The police arrested several local Tibetans wearing traditional outfits. They were not lamas. It happened because the police have been pushing too much, too severe, and people reacted. They tried to catch people and punish people after the riots this morning. Everything is calm now. There are lots of police coming tonight," he said. He manages a hotel in Tibet and was in Xiahe on business. "My friends in Tibet say it's OK to go into Tibet now with Tibetan people but if you go with Han Chinese there are problems," he said. Other Tibetan villagers were simply too afraid to talk.