Protests led by Buddhist monks against Chinese rule in Tibet turned violent today, with shops and vehicles torched and gunshots echoing through the streets of the ancient capital, Lhasa. A radio report said two people had been killed.
The U.S. and the European Union called on China to show restraint in the face of the protests and Washington said Beijing should respect Tibetan culture. Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, appealed to China not to use force against demonstrators.
The Dalai Lama called on the Chinese leadership to "address the long-simmering resentment of the Tibetan people through dialogue with the Tibetan people. I also urge my fellow Tibetans not to resort to violence." His statement was issued from India where he is in exile.
Pro-Tibet protests were also staged in India and Nepal. In Katmandu, Nepal police scuffled with about 1,000 protesters, including dozens of Buddhist monks, during a rally. About 12 monks were injured. Police arrested dozens of pro-Tibet protesters near the Chinese embassy in New Delhi, India.
In Lhasa, the largest demonstrations in nearly two decades against Beijing's 57-year-rule of Tibet began Monday, coming at a critically sensitive time for China as it attempts to portray a unified and prosperous nation ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games in August.
The demonstrations turned violent today when witnesses reported hearing gunfire and seeing vehicles in flames in Lhasa's main shopping district in the center of Lhasa. Crowds hurled rocks at security forces and at restaurant and hotel windows.
Shops were set on fire along two main streets surrounding the Jokhang temple, Ramoche monastery, and the city's main Chomsigkang market, and heavy smoke rose from the area. Protesters appeared to be targeting Chinese-owned businesses.
"It was chaos everywhere. I could see fires, smoke, cars and motorcycles burning," said a Tibetan guide who spoke on condition his name not be used, fearing retaliation by authorities. He said the whole road in the main Barkor shopping area surrounding the Jokhang temple "seemed to be on fire."
The guide said armed police in riot gear backed by armored vehicles were blocking major intersections in the city center, along with the broad square in front of the Potala, the former winter home of the Dalai Lama.
"As I approached Potala Square, I heard cannon fire, louder than rifles. Others told me police were firing tear gas along Beijing Zhonglu, west of the Potala," he said.
Radio Free Asia, which is funded by the U.S. government, quoted witnesses as saying two bodies were seen lying on the ground in the Barkor area, a shopping district in the old city where the protests have been centered.
This week's demonstrations began on the anniversary of a 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. Chinese Communist forces invaded Tibet in 1950, hoping to reclaim a part of the former empire and command the strategic heights overlooking rival India.
Beijing continues to rule there with a heavy hand, enforcing strict controls on religious institutions and it routinely vilifies the Dalai Lama, winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize who fled to India amid the 1959 rebellion. In recent decades, China has methodically begun exploiting the region's timber and mineral wealth.
The protests were initially led by hundreds of Buddhist monks demanding the release of other monks detained last fall. It was a stunning show of defiance for Tibetan monks who are usually closely monitored by Chinese officials.
Political demands soon came to the fore and the protests attracted large numbers of ordinary Tibetans and more monks demanding independence. Some unfurled the Tibetan flag, a capital offense in China.
Tensions in the Tibetan capital were heightened in the past few days as the city's three biggest monasteries were sealed off by thousands of soldiers and police in a government crackdown, Radio Free Asia reported Friday.
On Thursday, monks in Lhasa started a hunger strike and two attempted suicide as troops surrounded monasteries, RFA reported.
The protests were also spreading to Tibetan areas outside Lhasa, a city of about 250,000 permanent residents, not including large numbers of soldiers and members of China's paramilitary People's Armed Police.
The U.S. Embassy e-mailed an advisory to Americans warning them to stay away from Lhasa. The embassy said it had "received firsthand reports from American citizens in the city who report gunfire and other indications of violence."
Travel was also halted to Lhasa on today for foreigners, travel agents said. Hotels in the area were locked down at noon, said a hotel worker in downtown Lhasa.
It is extremely difficult to get independent verification of events in Tibet because China maintains rigid control over the area. Foreigners need special travel permits, and journalists are rarely granted access except under highly controlled circumstances.
A Western traveler told BBC World television today that police had attacked monks near monasteries and he saw military convoys moving into Lhasa carrying heavily armed troops.
Photographs taken by camera phone and forwarded to journalists by the Indian branch of Students for a Free Tibet showed an apparently peaceful protest march staged today in Xiahe, a traditionally Tibetan corner of the western Chinese province of Gansu.
The pictures showed robed monks &
some displaying the banned Tibetan national flag &
and lay people marching along a main street. Security forces with riot helmets and shields lined the way, but there was no sign of clashes.
Tibetans inside and outside the country have sought to use the Olympic Games' high profile to call attention to their cause. Beijing has accused the Dalai Lama &
whom many Tibetans consider their rightful ruler &
of trying to sabotage the games.
The U.S. urged China to show restraint and respect toward Tibetans.
"Beijing needs to respect Tibetan culture," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. "We regret the tensions between the ethnic groups and Beijing. The president has said consistently that Beijing needs to have a dialogue with the Dalai Lama."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. does not have any officials on the ground in Llassa and the U.S. is not aware of any American citizens involved in the protests or arrested in Tibet.
"Ambassador Randt, who was over meeting with senior level Chinese officials, took the opportunity to urge the Chinese government to act with restraint in dealing with the protesters," McCormack said.
European Union leaders also appealed to China to show restraint, and France's foreign minister said Paris was keeping its options open on whether to take further measures, possibly related to the Olympics.
The protests are believed to be the largest in the city since Beijing crushed a wave of pro-independence demonstrations in 1989. Since then, China has pumped investment into the region, vilified the Dalai Lama and tried to weed out his supporters among the influential Buddhist clergy.
Beijing maintains that Tibet is historically part of China. But many Tibetans argue the Himalayan region was virtually independent for centuries and accuse China of trying to crush Tibetan culture by swamping it with Han people, the majority Chinese ethnic group.
Protesters in Tibet burn cars and shops