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Violence in Tibet as Buddhist monks lead protests

March 15, 2008

BEIJING, March 12 (AFP) -- The Tibetan capital Lhasa erupted in
violence Friday as security forces used gunfire to quell Buddhist
monk-led protests that saw markets and cars set alight, witnesses and
rights groups said.

The violence, which left at least a dozen people hospitalized with
injuries, came amid an ever-growing campaign by Tibetans to challenge
China's rule of the Himalayan region in the lead-up to the Beijing
Olympics in August.

Foreign tourists and a local Tibetan reported hearing gunfire in Lhasa
as riot police and soldiers were sent in to quell the uprising.

"Sources confirm gunshots being fired to disperse the protesting
crowd," said the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy said,
run by Tibetan exiles in India.

A police car was burnt and one of the biggest markets in Lhasa was set
ablaze, witnesses and rights groups reported.

The unrest also spread to areas of China outside of Tibet, with
Buddhist monks leading a rally of up to 300 people in Xiahe, Gansu
province, the site of one of Tibet's most important monasteries, an
Agence France-Presse reporter witnessed.

"Shops were set on fire in violence in downtown Lhasa on Friday
afternoon," the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

"Witnesses said a number of shops were burnt and some others nearby
shut down business."

Xinhua said some people had been sent to hospital with unspecified
injuries. A nurse at one hospital told AFP that about a dozen people
had been brought in with injuries, but she gave no more details.

The fires broke out in a market and street near the Jokhang temple in
the old part of Lhasa, a local fireman and tourists in the city told
AFP. The temple is regarded as one of the most sacred sites for
Tibetan Buddhists.

The unrest followed three days of protests by monks in Lhasa, India
and elsewhere around the world that marked the anniversary of a failed
uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.

China has ruled Tibet since 1951, a year after sending troops in to
"liberate" the region from what it said was feudal rule. Tibet's
spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled Tibet following the failed 1959
uprising.

Tibetan rights groups have vowed to pile intense pressure on China
over its controversial rule of the region in the lead-up to the Summer
Olympic Games, when the world's spotlight will be put on the nation's
communist rulers.

The Dalai Lama spoke out on Monday about what he termed "unimaginable
and gross human rights violations" in Tibet by the Chinese
authorities.

"It shows the level of frustration that was building up,"
International Campaign for Tibet spokeswoman Kate Saunders told AFP,
referring to the emotions of the Tibetans.

"They seem to have reached breaking point against the policies that
the Chinese have used in Tibet."

The protests are the biggest since 1989, when current Chinese
President Hu Jintao was the Communist Party chief of Tibet.

Hu is due to be re-elected by the nation's rubber-stamp parliament as
president for another five years.

The Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy said the protests
began when 100 monks from the Ramoche temple north of Lhasa walked
into the city center early Friday.

The monks "were blocked by Chinese armed police which led to minor
scuffles between the two," the centre said in a statement posted on
its website.

"The monks carried forward their peaceful demonstration which
eventually grew bigger with bystanders joining them."

The International Campaign for Tibet's Saunders said a police car was
burnt near the Ramoche temple.

Saunders said the rights group had also received reports of a fire at
the Tromsikhang market in Barkor Street, which has a line of stalls
that run around the Jokhang temple.

Troops had earlier surrounded the three biggest monasteries in and
around Lhasa, Saunders' organization said.

Foreigners in Lhasa contacted by AFP reported that Buddhist monks and
others had protested throughout the city, and that tourists had been
told to stay in their hotel rooms.

"Buddhist monks have marched in the street," a French tourist
contacted at his hotel told AFP.

"It is not possible to go to Barkor street, the monastery is closed...
it is forbidden to go down there."

A German tourist reported a heavy police and military presence in Lhasa.

"We know there is a lot of military and police in the middle of Lhasa.
When they told us to stay in the hotel, we could do nothing else."

Hundreds of monks took part in protests earlier in the week in Lhasa,
rights groups said.
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