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Foreign diplomats visit Tibet amid boycott debate

Latest update : 2008-03-28

Foreign diplomats have been invited to visit Tibet on Friday following the unrest in the region. The trip takes place amid an EU debate over a possible boycott of the Olympic games. François Touron reports.

China on Friday let the first foreign diplomats visit Tibet following deadly riots there, amid debate in Europe over whether the Chinese crackdown should trigger a boycott of the Olympics opening.

Two weeks after the protests in the Himalayan region entered a lethal phase, diplomats from a number of countries, including the United States, Britain, France and Japan, set off on the government-organised tour.

"I suppose the objective of the Chinese foreign ministry is to basically answer the international calls... to have diplomatic access to Tibet," said Australian embassy spokeswoman Janaline Oh.

Diplomats from about 15 countries were allowed to go on the hastily-arranged two-day visit, according to a Japanese embassy official.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack welcomed the move, but said it was not enough.

"We see this as a step in the right direction, but it's not a substitute for the ability of our diplomats, as well as others, to travel not only to Lhasa, but into the surrounding area specifically," he told reporters.

China brought a foreign media delegation to Lhasa on Wednesday for a three-day trip following international pressure to allow independent reporting from the Tibetan capital, after it was sealed off due to the unrest.

AFP and some other major news organisations were not invited on the trip, which has been criticised for being carefully choreographed to show only Beijing's side of the story.

Nevertheless, the trip embarrassed China when monks at the Jokhang temple in Lhasa spoke out in front of the foreign reporters against Chinese rule.

"We want (Tibetan spiritual leader) the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet, we want to be free," the monks yelled.

The protests began in Lhasa on March 10 to mark the anniversary of a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet, an event that saw the Dalai Lama flee to India where he has since lived in exile.

The protests erupted into widespread rioting in Lhasa on March 14, and spread to neighbouring Chinese provinces populated by Tibetans.

China says rioters killed 18 innocent civilians, including three ethnic Tibetans, and two police officers.

Exiled Tibetan leaders have put the death toll from the Chinese crackdown at between 135 and 140, with another 1,000 people injured and many detained.

Reports from Tibet indicated no let-up in China's efforts to contain the protests, as authorities kept a tight lid on any potential trouble spots.

All monasteries in Lhasa remained closed Friday, an official with the Lhasa Tourism Administration said.

"None of the monasteries in Lhasa are open... it's hard to say when they will reopen. This issue is beyond our powers," the official, who declined to be named, told AFP by phone.

The Wall Street Journal reported that armed police had surrounded the three main monasteries in Lhasa -- Drepung, Ganden and Sera -- and that the foreign media delegation had not been allowed into them.

The International Campaign for Tibet, citing sources in Lhasa, reported that monks who had tried to leave Sera monastery had guns pointed at their heads and were ordered to go back.

In Slovenia later on Friday, European Union foreign ministers were expected to discuss boycotting the August 8 Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing, with several eastern European leaders already vowing to stay away.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus and his Estonian counterpart Toomas Hendrik Ilves, along with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, have said they will not attend.

"My evaluation is very clear: the presence of politicians at the inauguration of the Olympics seems inappropriate," Tusk said Thursday.

However British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in London that Britain, which will host the 2012 Olympics, would not boycott any part of the Beijing Games.

Faced with division in the European ranks, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who met with Brown in London on Thursday, said he would ask EU leaders ahead of the Games whether they wanted to boycott the opening ceremony.

"At the time of the Olympics, I will be in the presidency of the European Union so I have to sound out and consult my fellow members to see whether or not we should boycott," Sarkozy said.

Date created : 2008-03-28