BEIJING (Reuters) - Tibet’s Communist Party chief promised a trouble-free Olympic torch relay through the region, even as security forces struggled to stamp out violence in a nearby ethnic Tibetan area.
Just 125 days before the Olympic Games begin in Beijing, the evening news featured Tibetans saying they were pleased with China’s development policies.
State-run television also ran a long programme on the life of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader whom China accuses of “splittist” activities.
In Paris, French Human Rights Minister Rama Yade said President Nicolas Sarkozy would not attend the opening ceremony of the Games unless China opened talks with the Dalai Lama.
She said she understood the emotions sparked by Tibet and urged China to live up to its promises to promote human rights.
Many Western nations have urged Beijing to open a dialogue with the Tibetan leader, but China has rejected the idea and accused him of orchestrating the violence and pursuing Tibetan independence. The Dalai Lama says he wants only autonomy for his homeland.
Chinese security forces have locked down Tibet and neighbouring provinces to quell anti-Chinese protests and riots that started in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in mid-March.
But as recently as Thursday night, eight people died when rioting hit an overwhelmingly Tibetan area of Sichuan province, according to the International Campaign for Tibet, a group based in Washington which backs self-determination for the region.
Police fired on a crowd of locals and Buddhist monks after monks at the Tongkor monastery in Ganzi (Garze) Prefecture were held by police searching for images of the Dalai Lama, the Campaign said on its Web site (www.savetibet.org).
The monastery is home to 350 monks, according to its Web site (www.donggusi.com). Phone calls to the monastery and local government offices were not answered.
An earlier report on the riot by China’s official Xinhua news agency said an official had been injured but did not mention any deaths. Foreign reporters cannot travel there to test the claims.
Despite the tension, the hardline Tibet Communist Party secretary, Zhang Qingli, vowed a “faultless” passage for the Olympic Games torch when it passes through the region in coming weeks.
“Officials and masses from all ethnic groups must raise ethnic solidarity and make the successful passage of the torch through Tibet a heavy and glorious responsibility,” Zhang said in a speech carried in the Tibet Daily on Saturday.
He said Lhasa was returning to normal after the unrest in mid-March, and again accused the Dalai Lama of inciting more violence.
The Olympic torch arrived in Beijing last month amid tight security, and will pass through Tibet in June after an international tour. Chinese climbers will try to carry a separate torch to the peak of Mt Everest, on the Tibet-Nepal border, early in May.
Zhang told officials to be vigilant in preventing any disruption of the torch’s passage and said the journey could be a display of the region’s stability.
“Tibet from top to bottom must keep a clear head at all times, without the least relaxation of our vigilance,” he said. “Create a healthy social atmosphere of harmony and stability for the Beijing Olympic Games torch relay in the Tibet Autonomous Region.”
On Friday, Xinhua said “an official was attacked and seriously wounded” in the riot in Sichuan.
“Police were forced to fire warning shots and put down the violence, since local officials and people were in great danger,” Xinhua said in its English-language report, which was also carried in the China Daily on Saturday.
Chinese-language media did not carry news of the incident.
Ganzi and neighbouring Aba in Sichuan province have seen angry confrontations between Tibetan protesters and police in the past weeks. Anti-riot troops have poured into the area.
Buddhist monks’ protests against Chinese rule in Lhasa gave way to deadly rioting on March 14.
China says 19 people died in the Lhasa violence but representatives of the Dalai Lama say some 140 people died in the unrest across Tibet and nearby areas.
Sixteen mostly illiterate Tibetans were arrested on Saturday for a March 15 riot in which five people were killed in Dagze county about 25 km east of Lhasa, Xinhua said.
The dead appear to be five migrants from Henan province, burned in a motorcycle repair shop and included in China’s official figure of 19 deaths, though Xinhua gave no details.
So far, 414 people have been detained for the March 14 riots in Lhasa, and 289 have turned themselves in voluntarily, Xinhua said. Six have been identified as “ringleaders,” it said.
Editing by Tim Pearce