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Several days of protest in Tibet turned violent today, as demonstrators threw rocks and burned shops and cars in the capital, Lhasa. Chinese police are said they were responded with force and there are reports of casualties.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Beijing to respond with restraint, as did the U.S. and the European Union.
NPRs Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing that the protests appear to have caught China off-guard just months before it hosts the summer Olympics.
ANTHONY KUHN: Eyewitness accounts say that todays violence was centered in the Barkhor, the heart of old Lhasa and the site of similar violent protests nearly 20 years ago. Reports say that demonstrators burned shops and vehicles in the Barkhor and pelted police with stones.
The U.S. Embassy in China warned American travelers to stay off the streets. The protests began peacefully on Monday. Monks from the main three Buddhist monasteries around Lhasa marched in remembrance of a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule.
From his home in exile in Dharamsala, India, Tibets spiritual leader the Dalai Lama spoke then of increasing brutality and repression in Tibet.
His Holiness TENZIN GYATSO (14th Dalai Lama of Tibet): (Through translator) For nearly six decades, Tibetans in the whole of Tibet have had to live in a state of constant fear, intimidation and suspicion under Chinese repression. But in addition to maintaining their religious faith, a sense of nationalism and their unique culture, the Tibetan people have been able to keep alive their basic aspiration for freedom.
KUHN: In recent days, protesters have demonstrated outside Chinese diplomatic missions in several cities around the world. In India, police arrested around 100 protesters marching towards the border with Tibet.
Tsewang Rigzin is president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, a Dharamsala-based organization of exiles involved in the march. He said the run-up to the Beijing Olympics was the perfect opportunity to make a statement.
MR. TSEWANG RIGZIN (President, Tibetan Youth Congress): The protesters are in great spirits. We realize that this is a golden opportunity for our struggle. Tibet has been under Chinese occupation for the last 50 years, and we never had such an opportunity to shine the spotlight on the brutal Communist Chinese regime in Tibet.
KUHN: Today, the Dalai Lama appealed to Chinas leadership to address what he called the long-simmering resentment towards Chinese rule over Tibet. Chinas government did not comment today on the escalation in violence. Yesterday, Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, blamed this weeks unrest on the Dalai Lama.
Mr. QIN GANG (Spokesman, Foreign Ministry, China): (Through translator) This was a political plot, he said, carefully planned by the Dalais group to separate Tibet from China and disrupt the normal, stable and harmonious life of the Tibetan people.
KUHN: Lodi Gyari is the Dalai Lamas special envoy. He says that now, just as 50 years ago, Tibetans are protesting restrictions on basic religious freedoms. And he has told the Chinese this in his negotiations.
Mr. LODI GYARI (Dalai Lamas Special Envoy): I said look here, dont make mistakes again. But theyd never learn. They just feel that they have the upper hand.
KUHN: Observers note that when the last wave of major unrest shook Tibet in 1989, the regions Communist Party boss did not hesitate to unleash a harsh military and political crackdown. That boss, Hu Jintao, is now Chinas president.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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