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Bush to head US tribute to the Dalai Lama

President George W Bush and top US legislators are set to lead an unprecedented official US tribute to the Dalai Lama.

world Updated: Oct 17, 2007 12:39 IST

President George W Bush and top US legislators were set on Wednesday to lead an unprecedented official US tribute to the Dalai Lama, bucking China's angry warnings of crippled Sino-US relations.

In a 1:00 pm (1700 GMT) ceremony at the Capitol, Bush is scheduled to deliver brief remarks and hand Tibet's spiritual leader a US Congressional Gold Medal -- the highest civilian award bestowed by US lawmakers.

It will be the first time a sitting US president appears in public with the 72-year-old Buddhist figurehead.

On Tuesday, Bush and the Dalai Lama met privately for 30 minutes in the ornate "Yellow Oval" room in the White House residence far from the formal diplomatic trappings of the Oval Office in an effort to placate the Chinese.

"We in no way want to stir the pot and make China feel that we are poking a stick in their eye," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

The point of the meeting was to pay tribute to "a great spiritual leader" and endorse greater religious freedom in Tibet, Perino said.

Mindful of Beijing's role in efforts to defuse the Iranian and North Korean nuclear crises, the White House toned down the symbolic overtones of the Tuesday meeting by declining to specify a time of the event, or release a photograph, or specify what had been discussed.

Beijing was not appeased. Foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao on Wednesday called the meeting a "gross interference in China's internal affairs" and urged that the medal ceremony be canceled.

"China is strongly resentful of this and resolutely opposes it, and has made solemn representations to the US side," Liu said, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

"We (have) seriously urged the US side to correct such wrongdoings and stop interfering in China's internal affairs in any form."

Liu reiterated China's position that the Dalai Lama, the 1989 Nobel Peace laureate, was intent on trying to achieve independence for Tibet, even though he insists he wants only autonomy under Chinese rule.

"Tibet is an inalienable part of the Chinese territory, and the Tibet issue is purely China's internal affairs," he said.

"The words and deeds of the Dalai Lama in the past decades show he is a political refugee engaging in secessionist activities in the camouflage of religion," Liu added.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said on Tuesday that the Dalai Lama's meeting with Bush and the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony represent "a severe violation of the norms of international relations," and accused the United States of having "severely hurt" China's feelings and interfered in its internal affairs.

After the Tuesday meeting, aides quoted the Dalai Lama as saying: "I wanted to express my appreciation to President Bush since he really took seriously the situation" in Tibet. He added: "We have developed a close friendship."

Past Congressional Gold Medal winners include former South African president Nelson Mandela; Mother Teresa of Calcutta; polio vaccine developer Jonas Salk; tough-guy Western actor John Wayne; singer Frank Sinatra; and the late pope John Paul II.

Top Democratic and Republican leaders of the US Senate and House of Representatives, as well as Holocaust author Elie Wiesel, were due to make remarks at the event, while Hollywood star Richard Gere was to attend the ceremony.

The Dalai Lama arrived in Washington Monday and was warmly received by a crowd of Tibetans in traditional dress who honored the spiritual icon with blessings, songs and dances.

The Dalai Lama fled to India following a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, and currently lives in the northern hill town of Dharamsala, which is also the seat of his government in exile.
China has ruled Tibet, a devoutly Buddhist land of six million, since sending troops into the region in 1950, and officially "liberating" it from feudal rule a year later.

China showed its displeasure over the Dalai Lama's trip to Washington by putting off a Berlin meeting of the UN Security Council's five permanent members and Germany on the Iranian nuclear crisis, a US State Department official said.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the postponement was due to unspecified "technical reasons," and added: "China's stance on Iran's nuclear problem remains unchanged."

While China's fury is now directed at the United States, it has also lashed out at Germany, Australia and other Western countries in recent months after their leaders met the Dalai Lama.

First Published: Oct 17, 2007 12:22 IST