Tibet to stay on Olympic torch route despite riots

BEIJING Wed Mar 19, 2008 11:16pm GMT

1 of 13. A Tibetan protester on hunger strike wears a mask with a picture of Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama, as she sits in a tent in front of the Chinese embassy in Brussels to protest against China's crackdown in Tibet March 19, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

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BEIJING (Reuters) - China vowed on Wednesday to take the Olympic torch to Tibet despite deadly riots there and said it was in a "life or death struggle" over the Himalayan region with "the Dalai Lama clique".

In London, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao had told him on Wednesday Wen was prepared to talk with Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhists, under certain conditions.

"The premier told me that, subject to two things that the Dalia Lama has already said -- that he does not support the total independence of Tibet and that he renounces violence -- that he would be prepared to enter into dialogue with the Dalai Lama," Brown said.

Brown told parliament he would meet the Dalai Lama during a visit to Britain in May. China's foreign ministry said it was "seriously concerned" by Brown's statement.

Beijing and envoys of the Dalai Lama have been holding a slow-motion dialogue since 1979. The sixth round of contacts since 2002 ended in July last year without apparent progress.

The crackdown in Tibet and nearby provinces, following riots that may have killed dozens of people, have sparked calls for a boycott of the August Beijing Games that China wants to turn into a celebration of its emergence as a world power.

Tibetan activists want the Olympic torch relay to skip Tibet.

But Jiang Xiaoyu, executive vice president of the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, told a news conference the relay would proceed as scheduled because the situation in Tibet has stabilised.

Protests over Tibet are likely to mar the torch relay as it travels through 19 cities outside China on its 97,000-km journey around the world in April.

"We hold the opinion that those activities are a challenge to the Olympic Charter, a challenge to all those who love the Olympic movement around the world," Jiang said.

"Those activities will not win the hearts and minds of people and are doomed to failure."

China accuses the Dalai Lama of orchestrating the monk-led protests and rioting -- the most serious in the Himalayan region for nearly two decades -- to try to wreck the August 8-24 Games.

"The Dalai is a jackal in Buddhist monk's robes, an evil spirit with a human face and the heart of a beast," Tibet's Communist Party secretary, Zhang Qingli, told a teleconference of regional officials, according to the China Tibet News.

"We are engaged in a fierce battle of blood and fire with the Dalai clique, a life-and-death struggle between the foe and us".

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The spiritual leader denies he masterminded the protests -- which culminated last Friday in a riot in the capital of Tibet, Lhasa -- from his base in the Indian town of Dharamsala.

He insists he only wants greater autonomy for his homeland, not independence from China.

His government-in-exile says 99 people died when Chinese security forces moved to quell the riot. Beijing says at least 16 died, mostly "innocent" civilians.

The official China News Service reported that 160 Lhasa rioters had so far given themselves up to the authorities. The Tibet government set a deadline of midnight Monday for those involved to surrender or face harsh punishment.

The authorities, keen to stamp out the unrest quickly and restore stability in western China before the Olympics, have blocked foreigners from Tibet and nearby ethnic Tibetan areas.

Foreigners travelling in western Sichuan province on Wednesday were taken off a public bus at a police check-point at Yajiang, a village on a major highway leading to Lhasa, and sent on a mini-bus to Kangding, a city further east.

"It is closed to all foreigners and tourists. There is nothing to see now, but you're welcome to come back some other time," a police officer at the check-point in Yajiang said.

BBC television showed what it said was footage of rioting in a town in Gansu province, which neighbours Tibet, on Tuesday, the same day Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told a news conference in Beijing the protests had been quelled.

The video, which the BBC said was filmed by a Canadian crew, showed hundreds of Tibetans, including some monks, on foot and on horseback making for the government compound, where they pulled down a Chinese flag and raised a Tibetan one in its place.

The BBC said the horsemen were backed up later by 50 to 60 men on motorbikes and that, altogether, some 700 families from villages in the surrounding countryside joined the two-hour rioting before government reinforcements arrived.

The torch relay, which starts when it is lit in Ancient Olympia, Greece, next Monday, is scheduled to visit Tibet twice.

When the flame arrives in Beijing on March 31 before embarking on its journey around the world, a second torch will be lit and taken to Tibet, where Chinese climbers will attempt to take it to the top of Mount Everest. The attempt will take place in early May whenever the weather conditions on the world's tallest mountain are most suitable.

Tibet is also on the domestic leg of the relay in June.

(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley and Benjamin Kang Lim in Beijing, John Ruwitch in Sichuan province and by Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Alex Richardson)

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