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Hong Kong tourist says he was blocked from Tibetan town

March 8, 2009

March 6, 2009

BEIJING -- Armed police were stationed throughout the capital of Chinese-controlled Tibet and blocked roads to the eastern part of the region, Hong Kong tourists said Friday, in the latest sign of tensions ahead of next week's anniversary of anti-government riots.

Paramilitary officers were spotted all over Lhasa and the atmosphere was "tense," a 33-year-old Hong Kong traveler told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

Tensions have been high in Tibet and Tibetan-inhabited regions in western China in the run-up to several anniversaries this month, including the 50th anniversary of a failed 1959 uprising during which Tibet's traditional Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, fled into exile in India.

This month also marks the one-year anniversary of massive anti-government protests that spread across Tibetan areas in China following a deadly riot in Lhasa on March 14. China has said 22 people died in the violence, while Tibetan supporters say many times that number were killed in demonstrations and the subsequent military crackdown.

Tibet's governor Qiangba Puncog said Friday a few people allied with the Dalai Lama may create small incidents on the anniversary next Saturday, but officials don't expect any large-scale rioting like last year.

Witnesses and pro-Tibetan groups say China has deployed thousands of soldiers and paramilitary forces in the region, putting it under de facto martial law, to prevent a repeat of last year's wide-scale protests.

But Kang Jinzhong, the political commissar of the paramilitary police in Tibet, said the armed police deployment in the region has remained "normal" since before the riots, and there had been "no special increase or supplement."

The tourist was one of three backpackers from Hong Kong whom police stopped and confiscated travel documents from Wednesday on the edge of Bayi town, 300 kilometers (186 miles) east of Lhasa. The man, an engineer, identified himself only by his surname Chu because he was still in Tibet and feared retaliation from the authorities.

Chu said the three were questioned for four hours about the purpose of their visit and then told they could not enter Bayi for security reasons. They were escorted back to Lhasa the next day. He said seven mainland tourists traveling with them were allowed to visit the town.

"If the authorities don't want us to visit, they shouldn't have allowed us to enter Tibet at all," he said.

The region has been mostly sealed off to journalists and foreigners for at least a month, though Hong Kong residents are allowed to travel to Tibet without a special permit.

China claims Tibet has always been part of its territory, but many Tibetans say the Himalayan region was virtually independent for centuries and that Beijing's tight control is draining them of their culture and identity.

Associated Press writer Dikky Sinn reported from Hong Kong.
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