China prepares for crackdown by clearing Tibetan capital of witnesses

After days of street fighting and protests by Tibetans seeking independence, Chinese authorities have moved to clear Lhasa of the last independent witnesses ahead of a deadline for demonstrators to surrender. Beijing's governor in Tibet promised leniency to demonstrators prepared to give themselves up, but Tibet independence groups said scores of people had already been killed during the protests.

Yesterday, sources in Lhasa said NGOs and the few remaining foreign journalists were taken out of the city, leaving no one to inform the world of how Beijing would reinforce order.

Some reports said handcuffed Tibetan prisoners were paraded through the city earlier yesterday. In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry denounced attacks on Chinese embassies around the world. "The Chinese government will unwaveringly protect national sovereignty and territorial integrity," said a spokesman, Liu Jianchao.

Officials, who have blamed the the Dalai Lama for the unrest, also claimed they had evidence of Tibetan protesters mutilating a Chinese paramilitary policeman and cutting the ears off Chinese civilians.

The uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet has been the most significant in nearly 20 years, the biggest challenge to Beijing's international reputation since the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The unrest began on 10 March as monks gathered in Tibet to mark the anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule in the region that sent the Dalai Lama and much of the leading Buddhist clergy into exile. The demonstrations in Lhasa turned from peaceful protests into violent riots as ethnic Tibetans set fire to Chinese-owned businesses.

Worldwide protests against Chinese rule in Tibet continued. In Nepal, police used bamboo batons to disperse about 100 Tibetan protesters and Buddhist monks near the main UN office in Kathmandu and there were 44 arrests.

In Beijing, the government shut access to the video-sharing website YouTube, and email access and other internet services were patchy at best, which residents attributed to the usual internet slowdown which accompanies the meeting of China's national parliament, the National People's Congress.

The week's protests have turned the eyes of the world on Beijing's rule in Tibet ahead of the Olympic Games, which were supposed to showcase China's remarkable social and economic advances in 25 years. Instead, there are growing calls for a boycott of the Games over China's treatment of Tibetans, and broader concerns about its human rights record.

Even the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, reiterated his view that a boycott of the Games would be useless. But younger Tibetan activists have no qualms about calling for a boycott.

Many among this generation of Tibetans, too young to remember the harsh crackdown that followed riots in Lhasa in the late 1980s when President Hu Jintao was Communist Party chief in Tibet, have taken to the streets and want to stick to their course of confrontation.

The US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: "We have really urged the Chinese over several years to find a way to talk with the Dalai Lama, who is a figure of authority, who is not a separatist, and to find a way to engage him and bring his moral weight to a more sustainable and better solution of the Tibet issue."

Even as Lhasa was being cleared, there were defiant protests in other areas. One monk said he saw 100 troops parachuted into a troublespot from a helicopter, and all over the Tibetan region there were reports of trucks ferrying hundreds of militia in to contain order.

The Dalai Lama's exiled Tibetan government in India has said 80 Tibetans were killed. But Chinese officials said soldiers neither carried nor used lethal weapons. China's governor in the province, Champa Phuntsok, said the death toll from last week's violent demonstrations had risen to 16, with dozens of injuries.

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