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Activist group voices concern for Tibet

The 30 red-robed monks had pushed into a briefing being given by officials at the Jokhang Temple, complaining of a lack of religious freedom.

world Updated: Mar 28, 2008 20:31 IST

Tibet activists voiced concern on Friday over possible Chinese government retaliation against Buddhist monks who disrupted a stage-managed media tour of the riot-torn region's capital Lhasa.

The 30 red-robed monks had pushed into a briefing being given by officials at the Jokhang Temple on Thursday, complaining of a lack of religious freedom and denouncing official claims that the Dalai Lama orchestrated the March 14 violence.

The outburst was the only spontaneous moment on Thursday in an otherwise tightly controlled government trip to the Tibetan capital. China has strenuously argued that the widespread arson and looting was a criminal act orchestrated by separatists, while refusing to discuss the root causes of the anger and alienation blamed for sparking the violence.

The protest and resulting harsh security crackdown has further focussed international attention on China's human rights record ahead of the Beijing Summer Olympics.

"There are serious fears for the welfare and whereabouts" of the monks, the International Campaign for Tibet said in a statement. "The monks peaceful protest shattered the authorities plans to convey an image that the situation in Lhasa was under control after recent demonstrations and rioting," it said.

Thursday's protest lasted for about 15 minutes before government officials ended it and told the journalists it was "time to go." "What the government is saying is not true," one monk shouted out.

"They killed many people. They killed many people," another monk said, referring to Chinese security forces.

The reporters from foreign media outlets were on a three-day visit to Lhasa that ends on Friday. Other than the incident at the Jokhang, one of Tibetan Buddhism's holiest shrines, most of the second day of the tour went according to plan, with officials sticking to the government line that the most violent anti-Chinese protests in nearly two decades were plotted by supporters of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled Buddhist leader.

The Dalai Lama has denied the accusations and threatened to resign as head of the India-based Tibetan government-in-exile if the violence continued.

The latest round of protests started mostly peacefully among monks in Lhasa on March 10, the anniversary of a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. They spread to other Tibetan areas and four days later violence broke out in Lhasa, where Tibetans torched hundreds of buildings and attacked members of China's dominant Han ethnic group and Chinese Muslim migrants. 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.

One of the monks protesting on Thursday said the death toll was far higher than the government was saying. "The cadres and the army killed more than 100 Tibetans. They arrested more than a thousand," he said.

Fu Jun, head of the News Affairs Office of the Propaganda Department of the Tibet Communist Party, said Friday that the monks were spreading rumors.

"We are keeping an open mind about their complaints. The rumor is misleading the media without a shred of evidence ... We will clear up facts in a few days time when appropriate," Fu said. The Chinese-installed vice governor of Tibet, Baima Chilin, told the reporters late Thursday that the monks would not be punished for their outburst.

"We will never do anything to them. We will never detain anyone you met on the streets of Lhasa. I don't think any government would do such a thing," he said.

State TV, which has widely covered the foreign journalists' tour, showed the Jokhang visit on its evening newscast, but not the monks' outburst.