BEIJING (Reuters) - Tibetan monks stormed a news briefing at a temple in Lhasa on Thursday, accusing officials of lying about unrest and embarrassing Chinese authorities during a stage-managed tour by foreign reporters.
Authorities say calm has been restored since an anti-Chinese uprising erupted in the Tibetan capital two weeks ago. China says its security forces acted with restraint and that 19 people died at the hands of Tibetan mobs during the unrest.
But the Tibetan government-in-exile says 140 died in Lhasa and elsewhere, most of them Tibetan victims of security forces, arousing international protest soon before the Beijing Olympics.
On Thursday young monks at the Jokhang Temple, one of the most sacred in Tibet, stormed into a briefing by a temple administrator for a select group of foreign journalists, the first allowed into Tibet since the uprising.
“About 30 young monks burst into the official briefing, shouting: ‘Don’t believe them. They are tricking you. They are telling lies’,” USA Today’s Beijing-based reporter Callum MacLeod said by telephone from Lhasa.
Hong Kong’s TVB aired television footage of the bold outburst in front of the foreign journalists, showing monks in crimson robes, some weeping, crowded around cameras.
They said they had been barred from leaving the temple since March 10, when demonstrations erupted on the 49th anniversary of an abortive uprising against Chinese rule that saw Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, flee into exile in India.
“They just don’t believe us. They think we will come out and cause havoc — smash, destroy, rob, burn. We didn’t do anything like that — they’re falsely accusing us,” said one monk. “We want freedom. The have detained lamas and ordinary people.”
Wang Che-nan, a cameraman for Taiwan’s ETTV, said the incident lasted about 15 minutes, after which police took the monks elsewhere in the temple, away from the journalists.
They told the journalists: “your time is up, time to go to the next place”, Wang said.
Reuters was not invited on the government-organised trip.
Chhime Chhoekyapa, secretary to the Dalai Lama, said the incident made clear “that brute force alone cannot suppress the long-simmering resentment that exists in Tibet”.
“We are deeply concerned about the safety and well-being of the monks and appeal to the international community to ensure their protection,” he said.
On Wednesday, U.S. President George W. Bush urged Chinese President Hu Jintao to hold talks with the Dalai Lama.
Hu said China was willing to continue engaging in “contact and discussions” with the Dalai Lama, but he must renounce support for independence of the Himalayan region and Taiwan, and “stop inciting and planning violent and criminal activities and sabotaging the Beijing Olympics”, Chinese newspapers reported.
China has blamed the “Dalai clique” for the unrest and called him a separatist. The Dalai Lama denies he wants anything more than autonomy for his homeland and has condemned violence “from the Chinese side and also from the Tibetan side”.
Marches by monks in Lhasa turned within days into rioting in which non-Tibetan Chinese migrants were attacked and their property burned, until security forces filled the streets.
The protesting monks at the Jokhang Temple said on Thursday the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Dalai Lama was not behind the violence, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported.
He has said the Beijing Olympics in August are a chance for the world to press China on its rights record.
“In order to be a good host to the Olympic Games, China must improve its record in the field of human rights and religious freedom,” he told India’s NDTV news channel in an interview.
The protests spread to parts of Chinese provinces that border Tibet and have large ethnic Tibetan populations. China has poured troops into the region, many Tibetans have been arrested and serious unrest appears to have fizzled out.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang on Thursday again called for those involved in the Lhasa violence to give themselves up.
“We urge those lawbreakers involved in burning, smashing and looting who are still at large to hand themselves in,” he said.
Human Rights Watch said the United Nations human rights council should address the crisis in Tibet.
The group said Australia, the European Union, Switzerland and the United States raised abuses in Tibet at a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, but China blocked debate, backed by Algeria, Cuba, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy left open the possibility he might not attend the Olympic opening ceremony.
“We were shocked by what happened in Tibet and we made our great concern known, each in our own way,” Sarkozy said at a news conference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Washington said China had invited a U.S. diplomat to join a government-organized trip by foreign diplomats to Lhasa on Friday and Saturday and the United States had accepted.
Additional reporting by Lindsay Beck in Beijing, Krittivas Mukherjee and Bappa Majumdar in New Delhi and Kate Leung in Hong Kong; editing by Andrew Roche