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Tibetans defy crackdown

Times Staff Writer

Defying a massive deployment of Chinese security forces, ethnic Tibetan protesters unfurled the banned Tibetan flag and burned a police station Sunday as the violence that by some reports has claimed 80 lives spread into Sichuan province and other parts of western China.

The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, held an emergency conference with supporters and the news media in the mountain town of Dharamsala, India, and told them that he was powerless to stop the protests.

“It’s a people’s movement, so it’s up to them. Whatever they do, I have to act accordingly,” said the 72-year-old monk, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Thubten Samphel, a spokesman for the Dalai Lama, said that the exiled movement’s sources in Tibet had counted 80 bodies of people killed around Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.

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Tibetan activists said at least 15 more were killed near a remote mountain monastery in Sichuan province when paramilitary troops fired at a crowd of demonstrators who waved the Tibetan flag and chanted, “Free Tibet!” and “Bring back the Dalai Lama!”

Some of the bodies were dragged by monks into the Kirti Monastery, and others were left on display outside a police station in adjacent Aba County, according to the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy.

An enraged mob shortly afterward attacked the police station and government offices with Molotov cocktails. A policewoman was quoted by Reuters news service as saying that two police cars, a firetruck and a market had been burned down.

“They’ve gone crazy,” the officer said.

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The uprising presents the most serious challenge in years, if not decades, to China’s iron grip over its restive minority population. It comes at the most inconvenient time, with human rights activists already calling for a boycott of the 2008 Summer Olympics, due to open here Aug. 8. In what now seems an absurd proposition, China had planned to route the Olympic torch through Tibet to underscore that the nation’s minorities live in one “harmonious society.”

“If the Tibetans attacked people like the Chinese say, [officials] should let people in to find out. . . . If it is discovered that Chinese troops fired on unarmed demonstrators like at Tiananmen, you will hear a lot of people calling for a boycott,” said a European diplomat, referring to the military’s suppression of 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square, during which hundreds and perhaps thousands of demonstrators were killed.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a statement urged Beijing to show restraint and to “release monks and others who have been detained solely for the peaceful expression of their views.”

The protests began a week ago with a peaceful procession of Buddhist monks in Lhasa and have quickly evolved into the largest outpouring of Tibetan rage against Chinese rule in 20 years. Some observers have called the demonstrations “the Tibetan intifada,” a reference to the Palestinian rebellion against Israeli rule.

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The Chinese have deployed thousands of troops from the paramilitary People’s Armed Police and the People’s Liberation Army. But just as soon as the troops stamp out one protest, another pops up.

“You have a decade of pent-up resentment. It had been lurking all this time just beneath the surface,” said Ronald Schwartz, a Canadian scholar who wrote a book about the last major protests in Tibet, which took place in the late 1980s. “There are many Tibetan youth out there with a lot of frustration and bitterness.”

Chinese troops seized control of Tibet in 1951 and suppressed a rebellion in 1959. Since then, the Dalai Lama has led a self-proclaimed government in exile, now based in neighboring India.

Lhasa was like a ghost town Sunday, with residents barricaded inside and paramilitary troops and armored vehicles lining the streets. The Tibetan People’s Court has set a deadline of midnight tonight for rioters to surrender in return for amnesty. But few appeared to be taking the offer, and Tibetan activists said police were bursting into homes and dragging away suspects over the weekend.

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The violence was seeping outside Tibet proper into parts of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces with large ethnic Tibetan minorities.

Tibetans were reported to be marching in remote Maqu County in Gansu province, smashing shop windows and vandalizing cars. In Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, an estimated 500 students carried banned photos of the Dalai Lama in a sympathy protest.

Information about the clashes was difficult to verify. China has deployed troops and set up roadblocks in part to prevent journalists from reaching the scene of the protests. Most foreign tourists were ordered out of Tibet over the weekend. Internet connections were severed in much of Lhasa and Tibetan-language blogs shut down. In Beijing, Chinese censors have blocked access to the websites of many foreign newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times.

In the coming days, demands are likely to come from Washington and European capitals for monitors to examine what happened. Among the mysteries are how the peaceful protests in Lhasa escalated into riots, who instigated the violence and who was killed.

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The Dalai Lama’s office said 26 of the 80 people killed in clashes were found near Drapchi Prison. The prison is known to house long-term political prisoners. Other victims’ bodies were found outside a Buddhist temple, a cathedral and a mosque, his office said.

Pro-Tibet activists suggest that most of the victims were Tibetan protesters gunned down by Chinese troops. But the Chinese say a large number of the victims were Chinese attacked by Tibetans.

The official New China News Agency quoted a Muslim restaurant owner, Ma Xiaolong, who described how he hid in a bathroom as a gang of Tibetans pounded the metal gate over the storefront with rocks and then set the place on fire.

The Dalai Lama told reporters that China should be reminded of what it means to be a good Olympic host, but that the games should not be boycotted.

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“The Chinese people . . . need to feel proud of it. China deserves to be a host of the Olympic Games,” he said.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

Times staff writer Mark Magnier in Lanzhou, China, contributed to this report.

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