SEATTLE, DEC. 3 -- U.S. Ambassador to China James R. Lilley has expressed regret for calling demonstrators against Chinese human-rights abuses "cowards" and for suggesting that one man, a Tibetan, "go back to China and serve China."

Lilley said the protesters provoked him by calling him an obscene name.

"It was a mistake in the first place," he said of Saturday night's incident. "I shouldn't have done it."

Lilley, who was in Seattle to attend a three-day Sino-U.S. trade conference, made the comments in a brief interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Rep. John Miller (R-Wash.) said Sunday Lilley should apologize. Miller said protesters who returned to China could face arrest, trial and execution for speaking out in favor of democracy.

Lilley defended his position on human rights in China, noting he negotiated the passage to exile of Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi. Fang and his wife spent more than a year in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after the June 1989 Tiananmen Square killings.

State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler said Lilley's "spontaneous remark does not represent the considered views of the U.S. government nor the views of Ambassador Lilley himself, as he clearly articulated later."

Lilley got into Saturday night's argument with a handful of demonstrators when he arrived with Chinese Ambassador Zhu Qizhen.

"You're a bunch of cowards," Lilley yelled, looking back at one of the demonstrators, a 35-year-old Tibetan whom the ambassador apparently mistook for a Chinese. "You go back to China and serve China."