Foreign Journalists Allowed In Tibet

By: AP
By: AP

LHASA, China - China on Wednesday announced the surrender of hundreds of people over anti-government riots among Tibetans and allowed the first group of foreign journalists to visit the regional capital since the violence.

The moves appear calculated to bolster government claims that authorities are in control of the situation and that the protests that began peacefully were acts of destruction and murder. But the presence of police throughout Lhasa indicated the Tibetan capital remained under lockdown.

The protests embarrassed and frustrated the government ahead of this summer's Beijing Olympics, leading it to flood Tibet with troops and ban foreign journalists. The protests took a violent turn on March 14, when rioters set hundreds of fires in Lhasa and attacked ethnic Chinese.

State-run media announced that more than 600 people had turned themselves in to police in Lhasa and in Sichuan province, where unrest also broke out.

It was unclear how much freedom to report the small group of foreign journalists, among them an Associated Press reporter, would have during the Chinese government-arranged two-day trip.

The first several hours of the visit gave the group only a limited glimpse of Lhasa. The bus drive from the airport into the Tibetan capital was purposely slow, taking about 90 minutes to go 40 miles despite repeated pleas from the reporters to speed up.

The bus passed three checkpoints on the way, all manned by police in regular uniforms. Single police officers also were stationed at almost every cross street on the road to Lhasa.

The bus made a stop close to one of the checkpoints, and when several reporters walked back to see, government minders hurried along as well.

About five uniformed officers were stopping cars. One officer, Cun Luobu, said the checkpoint was set up March 14, but added they were checking only "for people not wearing seat belts, for violating traffic rules and for having fake license plates."

Armed police in camouflage uniforms were stationed at several places that appeared to be government offices. Machine guns were strapped across their chests, the highest state of readiness.

The reporters were taken to Potala Square, below the Potala Palace, the traditional seat of Tibetan rulers, which reopened Wednesday for the first time since March 14.

A reporter from Singapore's Lianhe Zaobao newspaper managed to talk to two Tibetans on the square who said security was tight and that they were often stopped for identification checks, but that they were allowed to move around the city.

After the square, the reporters were taken a few blocks away where many shops had been burned out during the rioting. Some of the stores that had not been damaged had white ceremonial scarves hanging from them. During the rioting, many Tibetans did that to let protesters know not to stone or burn the buildings because they belonged to Tibetans.

The journalists also were taken down Qingnian Road, another hard-hit street. At the end of the street was a two-story medical clinic that had been burned out.

A red banner hanging from a newly built arch on the road had "Construct a Harmonious Society" in gold Chinese writing. Harmonious society is a catch-phrase of President Hu Jintao to show the government's efforts to deal with social unrest created by an increasing gap between an urban middle class and the poor, largely rural masses.

The police presence in the parts of the city where reporters were taken was not noticeably heavy. In the Old City, members of the People's Armed Police were checking identification, but allowing people to pass by.

The reporters were not prevented from leaving their hotel Wednesday night, but were encouraged not to go out by their government handlers.

"Don't go out without informing us. It is for your own safety," said Guo Weiming of the Information Office of the State Council, China's Cabinet.

Asked to comment on the government-organized trip, the Dalai Lama called it a "first step" and said he hoped the trip would take place "with complete freedom. Then you can access the real situation."

The uprising was the broadest and most sustained against Chinese rule in almost two decades. Thousands of troops and police have been deployed to contain the unrest.

The government says at least 22 people have died in Lhasa; Tibetan rights groups say nearly 140 Tibetans were killed, including 19 in Gansu province.

So far, the U.S., Britain and Germany all have condemned China for its response to the protests, but stopped short of threatening to boycott the games or the Aug. 8 opening ceremony.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested Tuesday he could boycott the opening ceremony.

Belgian Vice Premier Didier Reynders said officials in his government had not excluded the possibility of staying away from the Games. The sports minister of the northern Dutch-speaking region of Flanders already has said he will not attend the opening ceremony, arguing it is used to promote Chinese propaganda.

Police have published a list of 53 people wanted in connection with the riots, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. At least 29 people have been formally arrested, but it wasn't clear if they were among the 53 on the wanted list.

Authorities had pledged harsh punishment for those participating in the violence. The Tibet Daily quoted the national police chief as saying monks would be subjected to "patriotic education" classes and he accused the protesters of violating Buddhist tenants.

In such classes, monks are forced to denounce their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who remains widely revered despite Beijing's relentless vilification, and declare their loyalty to the communist government.

China's communist troops entered Tibet in 1950, and the country claims to have the Himalayan region for seven centuries. Many Tibetans say they were effectively an independent nation for most of that time.


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