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Archive for Thursday, March 27, 2008

Foreign reporters allowed into Tibetan capital

A Tibetan couple walk past the shops burned during a March 14 riot in Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region. They were photographed Wednesday, the day a group of foreign journalists was allowed back into Lhasa.

A Tibetan couple walk past the shops burned during a March 14 riot in Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region. They were photographed Wednesday, the day a group of foreign journalists was allowed back into Lhasa.

March 27, 2008

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— Nearly two weeks after anti-Chinese riots and an ensuing crackdown, helmeted paramilitary police with batons checked identification papers in Lhasa's old Tibetan quarter Wednesday, even as the government said the city was returning to normal.

The first group of foreign journalists allowed into the Tibetan capital since soon after the riots got an often carefully monitored glimpse of a city divided. While police presence was visible but not overbearing in the newly built up and heavily Chinese portions of Lhasa, teams of security forces stood in the lanes near the sacred Jokhang Temple.

Two Tibetan teachers drinking in a nearby bar said they were enjoying a first night out after nighttime curfews kept them at home eating mainly tsampa - roasted barley - since the day after the March 14 riot. One reason the curfew was loosened, they said, was the foreign media visit.

An acrid odor hung in the blocks near the old city where rows of burned-out buildings stand as evidence of the violence. Many shops were closed, some from a lack of business, others from looting that left their migrant Chinese owners with little to sell.

"People are leaving because there's no business," said Jin Zhenman, a South Korean who came to Tibet to study traditional Buddhist painting and now runs a sundries shop.

China rarely allows foreign reporters into Tibet under normal circumstances, so the media tour underscores the communist leadership's determination to contain any damage ahead of the Beijing Olympics in August that was supposed to celebrate China as a modern, rising power.

Asked to comment on the reporters' trip, the Dalai Lama - the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetans - called it a "first step." He said he hoped the trip would take place "with complete freedom."

The rioting and four days of protests that preceded it were the worst anti-Chinese demonstrations in Lhasa in nearly two decades and they sparked protests in Tibetan areas across a vast portion of western China.

Chinese state media and officials said Wednesday that more than 660 protesters have surrendered in Lhasa and in Sichuan province, site of at least two violent confrontations between police and Tibetan protesters.

The Chinese government has maintained its response was measured and comparable to what any responsible government would do when faced with civil unrest.

That message underlined much of the official program put on for the roughly two dozen American, European, Middle Eastern and Asian reporters from the Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Financial Times, Japan's Kyodo News Agency, KBS of South Korea and Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera.

"The situation in Lhasa is returning to normal," Liu Xuan of the Tibetan Information Office told the reporters. The Potala - the Dalai Lama's former palace and a tourist attraction - was reopened Wednesday for the first time since the violence.

But while police in the Tibetan old city checked ID papers at twilight, letting only residents into the narrow alleys, by 10 p.m. the area seemed deserted except for the police. Patrols of a dozen police with helmets and shields marched on the streets.

President Bush called China's President Hu Jintao on Wednesday and raised concerns about the crackdown in Tibet.

Bush encouraged Hu to engage in "substantive dialogue" with representatives of the Dalai Lama, the White House said. The president also called on China to allow access for journalists and diplomats in Tibet.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday that the United States has requested that U.S. diplomats be allowed to go to Lhasa. But he said that he did not think that China had granted that access.

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