Tibet tense as Chinese clamp down on unrest: Troops use tear-gas on crowds demonstrating for independence

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The Independent Online
CHINESE police, determined to quell the most serious unrest in Tibet since 1989, yesterday fired tear-gas for the second successive day in Lhasa against crowds of Tibetans demonstrating for independence.

The speed of the official response yesterday prevented as big a demonstration as on Monday, when some 2,000 people shouted independence slogans and stoned public buildings and Chinese shops, but the Tibetan capital remained very tense last night.

Foreign visitors telephoned in Lhasa by The Independent said police quickly used tear-gas around noon yesterday to break up a crowd gathering near the Jokhang temple, Tibet's most sacred shrine. 'The Chinese were very well placed to crush anything,' said a Western traveller.

There was a heavy police presence on the streets, and several foreigners who ventured out had films and passports seized. One visitor said people with him had been fined the equivalent of pounds 60 and told to write 'self- criticisms' before being given three days to leave Tibet.

'I went out at midday and there were quite a lot of people around,' said a tourist. 'Then people started hearing a few chants again.

'A crowd started gathering again in front of the Jokhang temple. People who saw it said about 100 or 200 people. It was broken up very quickly by tear- gas, most of it thrown by hand by police into alleys or from the tops of nearby buildings. It wasn't a big demonstration, but there was a lot of tear-gas at one point.'

Another visitor was walking towards the temple through streets lined with shuttered Tibetan shops when he heard tear- gas being fired. 'I couldn't get any closer,' he said. 'There was too much gas.'

On Monday he had seen policemen chasing demonstrators and firing tear-gas canisters directly at them. Later he was in a restaurant when a police jeep came at speed down the slope outside, its occupants firing machine-guns.

'Everybody dived under the tables,' he said. 'I couldn't see if anyone was hit, but my impression was that they were firing in the air.'

Although Tibetans were taken away by police on Monday, it has not been possible to establish the number of arrests or injuries. The Chinese media have remained silent about the clashes, but a police spokesman contacted by Reuters condemned the protests as a 'counter-revolutionary activity' - one of the most serious crimes in the Chinese judicial system.

He said eight or nine police had been hurt, some of them seriously. He knew of no arrests, and claimed no protesters had been injured.

'It began as a protest in the name of lowering prices for grain and oil, but it changed its nature into a counter-revolutionary activity,' the police officer said. 'The demonstrators plotted to attack government offices and police stations and to beat policemen.'

The Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, said yesterday he was 'deeply distressed' by the violence, calling on Tibetans and the Chinese government to exercise restraint and for the release of detained people.

'I deplore the excessive use of force by the Chinese authorities on the slightest pretext,' the Dalai Lama said from his headquarters in Dharamsala, northern India. Although it was regrettable that Tibetan demonstrators had targeted Chinese shops, it showed growing resentment of the increased Chinese presence. 'The population transfer of Chinese settlers into Tibet is of great concern to me, as it threatens the very survival of the Tibetan people and our culture.'

Foreign residents of Lhasa said there had been an increased security presence for weeks, possibly connected with the visit of a European Community human rights delegation last week and Sunday's 42nd anniversary of the annexation of Tibet by China.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry yesterday denied claims by human rights groups of more than 100 arrests before the delegation's arrival, but confirmed that three people had been held. The only woman of the three, who were believed to be planning to hand over a letter to the diplomats, had been released, said the Chinese spokesman, but the other two were accused of separatist activity and stealing state secrets.

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