10 Dead as Protesters, Police Clash in Tibetan Capital

In countries all over the world, protesters take to the streets to oppose Chinese rule of Tibet after demonstrations in the province turned violent. [Editor's note: The caption for an earlier version of this slideshow was incorrectly associated with a photo from Nepal. This version has been corrected.]
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 15, 2008

BEIJING, March 15 -- Hundreds of protesters swarmed Tibet's capital Friday, clashing with police and setting fire to shops and cars in a spasm of violence worse than any there in nearly 20 years. Ten people were confirmed dead, and doctors reported dozens of injured streaming into hospitals as Lhasa descended into what one witness called "a state of siege."

By nightfall, armored personnel carriers had rolled into the center of the city. "The army is everywhere," said a hotel worker, who added that he was afraid to go outside.

The violence came after five days of escalating protests against Chinese rule in the remote mountainous region, the heart of Tibetan Buddhism. The confrontations, initially led by monks, were joined Friday by hundreds of Tibetan laypeople, who began attacking shops owned by ethnic Han and Hui Chinese. Street fights between Tibetans and Chinese continued into the night, according to reports from the region. Of the 10 people confirmed dead, a number were "business people," according to a report Saturday by the government-controlled New China News Agency.

The crisis exposed the anger Tibetans have long felt, but rarely were able to express openly, over Chinese domination. Although ethnic Chinese are a minority in Tibet, they are far better off economically. Tibetans also resent efforts by the central government in Beijing to bind their homeland to the rest of the country -- including the recent opening of a luxury train line to funnel tourists to Lhasa.

The Chinese government must now confront a significant political challenge as it prepares to host the 2008 Olympic Games in August. Authorities have steadfastly attempted to project an image of harmony and stability in Tibet and elsewhere even as they have tightened their grip over the region.

Images captured on cellphone cameras and posted on the Internet of protesters burning Chinese flags and running through the streets shouting independence slogans show how the once-small, romantic city, home to several of the most sacred sites of Tibetan Buddhism, has been transformed by years of intense development, often benefiting the Han Chinese who have settled there in the tens of thousands.

"This spiraling unrest has triggered the scenario the Chinese prayed would not happen," said Robbie Barnett, director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University. "They have left no one in place with any credibility who can come out on the streets and talk to these people."

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing, citing "firsthand reports" of gunfire in Lhasa, issued an alert that warned tourists in the city to stay inside and avoid "unnecessary movements."

China heavily restricts travel to Tibet, making it difficult to independently verify developments there. Sources reached by phone declined to identify themselves for fear of government reprisal.

In one brief interview, a doctor at the Tibet Autonomous Region People's Hospital said he had received 41 wounded. An official at the People's Hospital of Lhasa said there were many wounded there but gave no details. The wounded continued coming as night fell, one doctor said, after police imposed a curfew.

A person who answered the phone at a Lhasa firehouse Friday afternoon said, "Many places are on fire."

European Union leaders urged China to show restraint. A White House spokesman said Beijing "needs to respect Tibetan culture" and "needs to have a dialogue with the Dalai Lama," the Tibetan spiritual leader, whom the Chinese have accused of inciting the protests.

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