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China seals gateway into Tibet, stops refugee flow out

April 20, 2008


April 17, 2008

FRIENDSHIP BRIDGE, Nepal-Tibet Border (AP) -- Three lithe Chinese
security men shift silently into position so they are anchored abreast
exactly midway across Friendship Bridge, high above a Himalayan river gorge.

It's the only international gateway into Tibet. As a small group of
foreigners approaches, the guards' unspoken message is clear: the
rebellious territory behind them is off-limits.

After anti-government riots erupted March 14, Beijing closed off Tibet
to foreign and domestic tourists and cracked down on Tibetans trying to
escape. And China's security apparatus doesn't stop at the border.

Chinese security police in athletic wear can be seen lounging in tea
shops and strolling the sole street in the border town of Liping. They
shadow three Associated Press journalists from the moment they arrive,
ordering them not to take photographs -- on Nepalese territory.

And in the capital Katmandu, Tibetan exiles say China is pressuring the
Nepalese government to crush anti-Chinese activities by the world's
second-largest Tibetan exile community.

''The Chinese asked us unofficially to cooperate on securing the border.
They are far stricter now,'' said one Nepali immigration official,
requesting anonymity since he was not authorized to speak to the press.
''Even an Austrian lady who was studying Chinese in Lhasa (Tibet's
capital) was not allowed to enter.''

Before the current unrest, some 1,500 foreigners a month would make the
rough, four-hour car journey on a Chinese-built road from Katmandu to
the border and then on to Lhasa.

Now, Chinese authorities have reversed an earlier decision to reopen
Tibet to tourism on May 1, tour operators in Beijing said last week.
There has been no official indication of when the border would reopen.
The International Campaign for Tibet, a U.S.-based activist group, says
it has information the region may remain sealed until after the Beijing
Olympics in August.

''This is the high season, so we should be getting a full house, but we
have very few guests,'' said Pabitra Mager, a manager at Liping's Lhasa
Guest House. ''We can only hope that the border will reopen soon.''

Officials in Beijing also have declined to comment on troop deployments.
But Nepalese frontier officials say there has been a significant
increase in border patrols. A woman who answered the telephone at the
Public Security Bureau in Zhang Mu, the Tibetan town opposite Liping,
also said that more police and troops have been dispatched to the
region. She declined to give her name.

The buildup also means no exit from Tibet. No refugees have registered
at the U.N.-run Tibetan Reception Center in Katmandu since March 18. A
spokesman of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Nini Gurung, said
normally 200-250 flee into Nepal each month, discounting winter snows
still on the mountains as a major factor for the dramatic drop.

Refugees avoid the well guarded Friendship Bridge zone, braving instead
some of the world's most treacherous terrain -- mountain passes as high
as 16,400 feet often swept by sudden snow storms -- along the 878-mile
border.

In the past, some have been gunned down by Chinese guards or sentenced
to long jail terms after capture. A few have been abused and forcibly
repatriated by the Nepalese, despite a 1989 ''gentlemen's agreement''
with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The pact allows refugees to remain in Nepal while they are processed by
the agency. Then they are sent to India, home of the world's largest
Tibetan exile community and its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

China has provided substantial development aid to Nepal over the past
decade, increasing its leverage. Activists say China could pressure
Nepal to crack down on some 6,000 among the 20,000 Tibetan exiles
without legal status in Nepal and go after exile groups which stage
almost daily anti-Chinese protests in Katmandu.

Under pressure from Beijing, Nepal closed the representative office of
the Dalai Lama in 2005 and last year deregistered the Bhota Welfare
Office, a local organization assisting Tibetans.

''China already had a very heavy footprint in Nepal and after the
protests it will get even bigger, making the Tibetan refugees very
vulnerable,'' says Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet.

Saunders said Chinese security officials have been right behind Nepali
riot police and have directed suppression of protests. ''China has been
given a free rein in Katmandu,'' she said.

Local journalists covering the demonstrations have also seen Chinese
personnel, although no indication they were issuing instructions to police.

Home Ministry spokesman Modraj Dotel denied Chinese security gives the
orders, saying the protests violate Nepal's rules. ''We have a one-China
policy and won't allow any protests or activities against China in
Nepal,'' he said.

Nepalis, meanwhile, have been partially exempt from the frontier
clampdown. Visas for businessmen going to Lhasa are still granted and
cross-border business continues. Traders cross the bridge on foot or in
trucks, hauling in apples, Lhasa beer, perfumed laundry powder, wool
blankets, rice cookers and mobile telephones. (''Very cheap, but they
only last two months,'' jokes a Nepali woman in Liping).
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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