Fresh Melee in Lhasa After Police Apparently Launch Security Checks

A Tibetan nun in Kathmandu, Nepal, offers prayers for those killed in anti-Chinese rioting in Lhasa on March 14.
A Tibetan nun in Kathmandu, Nepal, offers prayers for those killed in anti-Chinese rioting in Lhasa on March 14. (By Saurabh Das -- Associated Press)
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By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 30, 2008

BEIJING, March 29 -- A melee erupted in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa on Saturday afternoon in the midst of hundreds of armed police who have been out in force since deadly rioting rocked the city two weeks ago.

The incident occurred as a 15-member delegation of foreign diplomats was leaving after a tightly scripted two-day tour arranged by the Chinese government to show that the city was back under control. The diplomats, including officials from the U.S., Japanese and Australian embassies, apparently did not witness it.

Although details were sketchy, reports indicated that armed police began massing shortly before 2 p.m. to check the identity papers of people in the area where the March 14 riot started, and Tibetans began running away rather than risk arrest. Security forces surrounded residential areas near the Ramoche and Jokhang temples while several hundred Tibetans staged a rally, Radio Free Asia reported, citing unnamed witnesses in Lhasa.

A Lhasa resident who spoke on condition of anonymity said a friend of hers had been shopping at a government store in the area when someone ran in about 2 p.m. saying another riot had begun. The store manager closed the shop doors, fearing a repeat of the chaos and violence of the March 14 riot, which left at least 19 people dead. But the manager was forced to reopen the doors when shoppers and employees demanded to leave. In the earlier riot, five employees huddling on the second floor of a clothing shop were burned alive when their store went up in flames.

The woman ran out to the street but could not get a taxi or bus to stop. "Everybody was in a panic," her friend said she told her.

The cellphone signal in the area had apparently been cut off, so the woman ran for nearly an hour to reach her home. She told her friend that she did not see a protest and that the streets were empty.

The Lhasa municipal police sent a text message to residents' cellphones Saturday evening telling them, "Currently the social order in our city is nothing abnormal." The message said that the security department was carrying out identity checks and that the procedures "caused some frightened citizens whose identification [documents] are not clear to run away," according to a translation provided by the International Campaign for Tibet. Citizens were also told not to listen to or spread "wild rumors." The same message was broadcast on the local evening news.

Chinese officials in Lhasa and Beijing could not be reached for immediate comment. Tibetan groups outside China said they learned about the melee from their sources in Lhasa.

"The incident certainly shows China has not succeeded in creating genuine stability," said Kate Saunders, spokeswoman for the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet. "The situation is still volatile."

Matt Whitticase, a spokesman for the London-based Free Tibet Campaign, said: "We understand that according to an eyewitness, it involved hundreds of Tibetans. It was very quickly put down because there was a heavy police presence in the area. It was a peaceful protest."

The government-in-exile of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, issued a statement from its base in Dharmsala, India, calling the demonstration "massive." "Thousands joined into the protests within no time," it said. "These protests are happening after many days of intense suppression."

Thousands of police poured into Lhasa after the March 14 rioting, the worst outbreak of violence there in nearly two decades.

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