China sets deadline for rioters to surrender

BEIJING (Reuters) – China set a “surrender deadline,” announced deaths and showed the first extensive television footage of rioting in Lhasa on Saturday, launching a crackdown after the worst unrest in Tibet for two decades.  

The response came following torrid protests on Friday which flew in the face of official claims the region was immune from unrest as Beijing readies to hold the Olympic Games in August.

Xinhua news agency said 10 “innocent civilians” burnt to death in fires that accompanied bitter street clashes in the remote, mountain capital on Friday. It said no foreigners died but gave few other details, and the report could not be verified.

Tibetan law-and-order departments offered leniency for participants who turn themselves in by Monday midnight.

“Criminals who do not surrender themselves by the deadline will be sternly punished according to the law,” stated the notice on the Tibetan government Web site (www.tibet.gov.cn). It added that those who “harbor or hide” them also face harsh treatment.

The government offered rewards and protection for informers.

But a source close to the self-proclaimed Tibetan government-in-exile suggested China’s death toll of 10 was not the full story. He said at least five Tibetan protesters were shot dead by troops. Other groups supporting Tibetan independence have claimed many more may have died.

The Olympic torch arrives in Lhasa in a matter of weeks.

China has accused followers of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, of masterminding the rioting, which has scarred its image of national harmony in the build-up to the Beijing Olympics.

“This was closely planned by the Dalai clique to separate Tibet from the motherland,” said the regional government notice, adding the claim that the burning of schools, hospitals, shops and houses was “premeditated.”

A rash of angry blog posts appeared after China confirmed deaths in Lhasa and Hollywood actor Richard Gere, a Buddhist and an activist for Tibetan causes, suggested an Olympic boycott.

“Westerners think they know all about China, telling us that this, that and the other is bad,” wrote one blogger, who listed historical reasons justifying Tibet’s inclusion in China.

Tibetan crowds in the remote mountain city attacked government offices, burnt vehicles and shops and threw stones at police on Friday in bloody confrontations that left many injured.

A Reuters picture showed a protester setting afire a Chinese national flag. Another depicted security personnel shielding themselves against rocks hurled by protesters. Television footage showed plumes of smoke rising over Lhasa and buildings ablaze.

Qiangba Puncog, the top government official in Tibet, told reporters in Beijing that Tibetan authorities had not fired any shots to quell the violence.

But the International Campaign for Tibet cited unconfirmed reports of scores of Tibetans killed. John Ackerly of the group said in an e-mailed statement he feared “hundreds of Tibetans have been arrested and are being interrogated and tortured.”

Danish tourist Bente Walle, 58, said Lhasa was like a ghost town on Saturday.

“Today Lhasa is completely closed and there is Chinese military all over,” she said, adding that many people were tying white prayer scarves on doors. “The Tibetans put them on their doors to tell everybody: here is a Tibetan.”

NO CHANGE OF POLICY

The riots emerged from a volatile mix of pre-Olympics protests, diplomatic friction over Tibet and local discontent with the harsh ways of the region’s Party leadership.

China has chided the leaders of the United States and especially Germany in past months for hosting the Dalai Lama, saying such acts boost what they call his “separatist” goals. It has also urged India to stop protests there by exiled Tibetans.

“We are fully capable of maintaining the social stability of Tibet,” Xinhua quoted an official as saying in a statement repeated across Chinese state media on Saturday.

But already the protests have become an international issue in relation to Beijing’s Games, which China hopes will showcase its economic progress and social harmony.

Asked whether he thought the unrest in Tibet would affect the torch relay, Sun Weide, spokesman for the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, said no.

“The preparations for the Torch relay in Tibet and taking the flame up Mount Qomolangma have been progressing smoothly,” he said. Mount Qomolangma is better known as Mount Everest.

(Additional reporting by Guo Shipeng, Nick Mulvenney and Ben Blanchard in Beijing, John Ruwitch in Chengdu and Sophie Taylor in Shanghai; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jerry Norton)

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