Thousands in Tibet riot against Chinese: Police fire tear-gas in worst unrest in Lhasa since 1989

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The Independent Online
UP TO 3,000 Tibetans rioted yesterday in the capital, Lhasa, against Chinese rule, according to Westerners in the city. In the most serious unrest since 1989, police fired large amounts of tear-gas as protesters stoned Chinese buildings, particularly the police headquarters.

Foreigners said the demonstration began as a protest against inflation. Police kept their distance at first as the protesters marched along the Barkhor, a pilgrim circuit near the Jokhang Temple, one of Tibet's holiest shrines, but began firing tear-gas as rocks were thrown and slogans changed into calls for Tibetan independence. Some protesters were taken away, but it was not clear if they had been arrested.

Later police in riot gear patrolled the gas-filled streets, ordering Westerners to remain in their hotels. Some travellers said films had been confiscated, and at least one American woman had her passport taken away. Police told her she would have to pay a fine to get it back before being expelled from Tibet. A Tibetan-speaking American said more protests were reported to be planned today.

Tension in Lhasa was increased by a wave of arrests before the arrival last week of a team of European Community diplomats, who were visiting Tibet to examine China's human rights record. Human rights groups reported that more than 100 people were held, including three suspected of planning to deliver a letter to the delegation. The diplomats, who returned to Peking on Sunday, threatened to call off the rest of their trip on hearing of the arrests, but agreed to continue after a meeting was arranged with the Vice-Governor, Thondrup. The EC team also insisted on turning a farewell banquet into a working dinner to discuss human rights.

Another possible source of discontent, Tibetan exiles said, was Sunday's anniversary of the 1951 signing of a document incorporating Tibet into China. Past celebrations of the 'peaceful liberation' of Tibet have stirred up anger.

Between 1987 and 1989 about 3,000 Tibetans were imprisoned for political activities and at least 200 killed in demonstrations. Martial law was declared for 13 months, beginning in March 1989, and the authorities are quick to crack down on dissent. More recently China has sought to overcome resistance to its rule, as well as adherence to Tibet's exiled religious leader, the Dalai Lama, by promoting economic development. Exiles claim, however, that 'reform and opening up' has simply led to an influx of Chinese settlers, who are now said to outnumber Tibetans.

The latest outbreak of violence is likely to be a serious embarrassment to China, which is awaiting President Bill Clinton's decision on whether to renew the country's trading privileges in the US for another year. Mr Clinton, who must announce his intentions by 3 June, is almost certain to attach human rights conditions, and he is under pressure from a number of senior Congressmen to make specific reference to Tibet.