Chinese invite Dalai Lama's aides for talks

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The first timid signs of an easing of the Tibet crisis were apparent yesterday after Beijing signalled it would meet envoys of the Dalai Lama in coming days, following weeks of calls from world leaders for talks in the aftermath of anti-Chinese riots in Tibet.

Anti-government protests in Lhasa and other Tibetan areas have become a focal point for international criticism of China's human rights policy. Many leaders have threatened to boycott the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing in August and demonstrations have plagued the Olympic torch's progress around the globe.

"In view of the requests repeatedly made by the Dalai side for resuming talks, the relevant department of the central government will have contact and consultation with Dalai's private representative in the coming days," the official Xinhua news agency quoted an unnamed official as saying.

"The policy of the central government towards Dalai has been consistent and the door of dialogue has remained open ... it is hoped that through contact and consultation, the Dalai side will take credible moves to stop activities aimed at splitting China, stop plotting and inciting violence and stop disrupting and sabotaging the Beijing Olympic Games so as to create conditions for talks," the official said.

Various rounds of closed-door talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama's envoys have been inconclusive but the fact that the world's attention is on China because of the Olympics and the riots in March means that these talks could mark the most significant dialogue yet.

Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama and his "splittist clique" of orchestrating March's violence, an accusation he denies. A spokesman for the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile cautiously welcomed the talks as a step in the right direction, saying only face-to-face meetings could resolve the issue.

The European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, who is in Beijing to meet Hu Jintao, China's President, described the Xinhua announcement as "encouraging". "So if the concern of the Dalai Lama is, as he has always stated, respect of cultural identity, religious identity and autonomy inside China, I believe, there's real room for a dialogue," Mr Barroso said. Gordon Brown, President George Bush and President Nicolas Sarkozy also urged Beijing to open talks.

The Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace prize in 1989 and is based in Dharamsala in northern India, insists he is a moderate who preaches a "middle way", and seeks special autonomy for Tibet within China, not independence. Tibetans remain fiercely loyal to the figure they regard as a god-king. He fled Lhasa in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, nine years after Communist troops entered the remote, mountainous region.

Beijing sees itself as a force that freed Tibetans of the backward yoke of a theocracy, bringing prosperity, and opening up the secretive region to modern ways. Critics say China is out to swamp Lhasa with the dominant Han Chinese ethnic group.

While Beijing's tone since March's riots has been aggressively anti-Dalai Lama, there has long been a view Beijing could engage in dialogue because there are fears that when he dies, it could create a power vacuum which violent, young separatists could try to fill.