BEIJING - Protests led by Buddhist monks against Chinese rule in Tibet turned violent Friday, with shops and vehicles torched and gunshots echoing through the streets of the ancient capital, Lhasa. A radio report said two people had been killed.
The biggest demonstrations in nearly two decades against Beijing's 57-year control of the Himalayan territory come at a critically sensitive time for China as it attempts to portray a unified and prosperous nation ahead of the Olympic Games in August.
China blamed the disturbances on a plot by followers of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled Buddhist leader whom the communist regime has accused of trying to sabotage the Beijing Olympics.
Witnesses reported hearing gunfire and seeing vehicles in flames in the Barkor shopping district in the center of Lhasa. Crowds hurled rocks at security forces and at restaurant and hotel windows, apparently targeting Chinese-owned businesses.
The U.S. and the European Union called on China to show restraint in dealing with the protests, and Washington said Beijing should respect Tibetan culture. The Dalai Lama appealed to China not to use force against demonstrators.
Chinese leaders must "address the long-simmering resentment of the Tibetan people through dialogue with the Tibetan people," the Dalai Lama said in a statement issued from his home in exile in India. "I also urge my fellow Tibetans not to resort to violence."
Pro-Tibet protests also erupted into violence in India and Nepal. In Katmandu, Nepalese police scuffled with about 1,000 protesters, including dozens of Buddhist monks. About 12 monks were injured. Indian police clashed with chanting protesters marching on the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi and arrested at least two dozen people.
In Lhasa, shops were set on fire along two main streets surrounding the Jokhang temple, Ramoche monastery and the city's main Chomsigkang market, and heavy smoke rose from the area.
"It was chaos everywhere. I could see fires, smoke, cars and motorcycles burning," said a Tibetan guide who spoke on condition his name not be used, fearing retaliation by authorities. He said the whole road in the Barkor shopping area around the Jokhang temple "seemed to be on fire."
The guide said armed police in riot gear backed by armored vehicles blocked major intersections in the city center as well as the broad square in front of the Potala, the former winter home of the Dalai Lama, who fled to India amid a failed 1959 rebellion by Tibetans.
"As I approached Potala Square, I heard cannon fire, louder than rifles. Others told me police were firing tear gas along Beijing Zhonglu, west of the Potala," he said.
Radio Free Asia, which is funded by the U.S. government, quoted witnesses as saying two bodies were seen lying on the ground in the Barkor area, a shopping district in the old city where this week's protests have been centered.
The previously peaceful demonstrations began Monday, on the anniversary of the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. Chinese Communist troops invaded Tibet in 1950, hoping to reclaim a part of the former empire and command the strategic heights overlooking rival India.
Beijing continues to rule with a heavy hand, enforcing strict controls on religious institutions and it routinely vilifies the Dalai Lama, winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. In recent decades, China has methodically begun exploiting the region's timber and mineral wealth.
In a dispatch from Lhasa, China's official Xinhua News Agency said authorities had evidence the protests were "organized, premeditated and masterminded" by the "Dalai clique."
The protests were initially led by hundreds of Buddhist monks demanding the release of other monks detained last fall. It was a stunning show of defiance for Tibetan monks who are usually closely monitored by Chinese officials.
Political demands soon came to the fore and the protests attracted large numbers of ordinary Tibetans and more monks demanding independence. Some unfurled the Tibetan flag, a capital offense in China.
Tensions in the Tibetan capital were heightened in the past few days as the city's three biggest monasteries were sealed off by thousands of soldiers and police in a government crackdown, Radio Free Asia said Friday.
On Thursday, monks in Lhasa started a hunger strike and two attempted suicide as troops surrounded monasteries, Radio Free Asia reported.
Protests reportedly were spreading to Tibetan areas outside Lhasa, a city of about 250,000 permanent residents, not including large numbers of soldiers and members of China's paramilitary People's Armed Police.
Photographs taken by camera phone and forwarded to journalists by the Indian branch of Students for a Free Tibet showed an apparently peaceful protest march Friday in Xiahe, a traditionally Tibetan corner of the western Chinese province of Gansu.
The pictures showed robed monks — some displaying the banned Tibetan national flag — and lay people marching along a main street. Security forces with riot helmets and shields lined the way.
The Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy said that the demonstrations in Gansu also turned violent when the demonstrators got close to public security offices.
"The police started to fire live ammunitions in the air and started to beat when the demonstrators neared the Sangchu County Public Security Bureau headquarters," said a press release on the center's web site.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing e-mailed an advisory warning Americans to stay away from Lhasa. The embassy said it had "received firsthand reports from American citizens in the city who report gunfire and other indications of violence."
Travel was also halted to Lhasa on Friday for foreigners, travel agents said. Hotels in the area were locked down at noon, said a hotel worker in downtown Lhasa.
It is extremely difficult to get independent verification of events in Tibet because China maintains rigid control over the area. Foreigners need special travel permits, and journalists are rarely granted access except under highly controlled circumstances.
A Western traveler told BBC World television Friday that police had attacked monks near monasteries and he saw military convoys moving into Lhasa carrying heavily armed soldiers.
Tibetans inside and outside the country have sought to use the Olympic Games' high profile to call attention to their cause. Beijing has accused the Dalai Lama — whom many Tibetans consider their rightful ruler — of trying to ruin the event.
Officials in Nepal said Friday that China has asked Nepal to keep climbers off Mount Everest this spring, worried that pro-Tibetan protesters might try to disrupt the carrying of the Olympic torch to the summit of the world's highest mountain. China already banned expeditions on its side of Everest until May 10.
The U.S. urged China's government to be restrained.
"Beijing needs to respect Tibetan culture," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. "We regret the tensions between the ethnic groups and Beijing. The president has said consistently that Beijing needs to have a dialogue with the Dalai Lama."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. does not have any officials on the ground in Llasa and the U.S. is not aware of any American citizens involved in the protests or arrested in Tibet.
"Ambassador Randt, who was over meeting with senior level Chinese officials, took the opportunity to urge the Chinese government to act with restraint in dealing with the protesters," McCormack said.
European Union leaders also appealed to China to show restraint, and France's foreign minister said Paris was keeping its options open on whether to take further measures, possibly related to the Olympics.
But EU officials made no mention of boycotting the Olympics. The bloc's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said he planned to be at the Beijing games.
At the United Nations, deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said the body urged "that care be taken by all concerned to avoid confrontation and violence."