Chinese diplomats in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu are tracking down and trying to silence hundreds of Western climbers and Sherpas who witnessed the killing of Tibetan refugees on the Nangpa La mountain pass last week.
This ominous development comes as fears grow for the safety of a group of Tibetan children, aged between six and 10, who were marched away after at least two refugees including a nun, were shot dead.
The children were being sent by their parents into exile in Nepal to be educated as part of a group of about 70 refugees crossing the Nangpa Pass. Secretive crossings are usually made at night or in winter. But this time - probably because of the children in their group - the Tibetans crossed in the morning. They were travelling lightly, clad in jackets and boots without any mountaineering equipment, when they were attacked.
The nun who was killed, Kelsang Namtso, 17, was leading the children. A 13-year-old boy was also gunned down during 15 minutes of shooting witnessed by Western climbers, including two British policemen, 1,000 yards away at Cho Oyu camp.
Later three Chinese soldiersmarched the child-ren through the camp - some 12 miles west of Mount Everest - as climbers and Sherpas looked on. None of the Westerners tried to help the Tibetans.
Fears for the safety of Western climbers still in Tibet and worries that China will clamp down on profitable climbing operations - it costs up to £30,000 for an attempt on Everest - have meant that news of the incident has been slow to emerge. An American climber, who asked not to be identified, told of his revulsion at the failure of other climbers to speak out.
"Did it make anyone turn away and go home? Not one," he said. "People are climbing right in front of you to escape persecution while you are trying to climb a mountain. It's insane."
So far there has been no official Chinese comment about the incident.
After the attack about 41 refugees, including a seven-year-old girl escaped over the pass into Nepal. There they have been cared for and interviewed by the International Campaign for Tibet. One of the monks who escaped said: "When the Chinese started shooting, it was terrifying. We could only hear the gunfire and our friends screaming. We tried to take care of the seven-year-old girl with us."
Chinese border security personnel now have custody of nine children, aged between six and eight, as well as an old man.
The Chinese embassy in Kathmandu yesterday contacted Steve Lawes, a British police officer who witnessed the shooting, and called him in for interview.
Mr Lawes, speaking from Nepal, described an "intimidating" atmosphere as the security personnel "took over" the camp at Cho Oyu, on the border between Tibet and Nepal. Mr Lawes from Bristol, said that about half-an-hour after the shooting the children were marched through their camp. "The children were in single file, about six feet away from me. They didn't see us - they weren't looking around the way kids normally would, they were too frightened. By that time, advance base camp was crawling with soldiers. We were doing our best not to do anything that might spark off more violence."
The shooting happened at around 10.30am on 30 September. Mr Laws said: "A group of between 20 and 30 people on foot [was] heading towards the Nangpa La Pass. Then those of us at advance base camp heard two shots, which may have been warning shots.
"The group started to cross the glacier and there were more shots. We were probably about 300 yards away from the Chinese who were shooting. This time it definitely wasn't warning shots: the soldiers were putting their rifles to their shoulders, taking aim, and firing towards the group.
"One person fell, got up, but then fell again. We had a telescope with us but the soldiers took this. Later they used it to look at the dead body."
Between 2,500 and 4,000 Tibetans make the crossing through the Himalayas via Nepal to India each year. The group that came under attack is typical of Tibetans who make the journey - mostly monks and nuns, seeking a religious education not possible in Tibet due to restrictions imposed.
Mary Beth Markey, executive director of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: "We are seeking assurances from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to ensure full protection to those Tibetans in the group who are now in Nepal, noting previous incidents where refugees have been sent back from Kathmandu even after appealing to the UNHCR for protection."
'Soldiers started shooting and I ran for my life'
This is the eyewitness account of a Tibetan monk:
We started walking early through the Nangpa La Pass. Then the soldiers arrived. They started shooting and we ran; there were 15 children from eight to 10; only one escaped arrest. I just ran to save my life by praying to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I think the soldiers fired for 15 minutes. They were shouting, but I did not hear them... I just heard gunshots passing my ears. I don't remember how many people were shot. First 36 people escaped, and the rest came later.
The Pass was about two hours and the snow was knee deep. The nun who was with us was shot and a boy was shot in the leg. There were people behind us who might be arrested. We don't know because we reached Nepal. I saw that western mountaineers took pictures, I'm sure they would have pictures.
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