China displays iron grip as Olympic torch tours Tibet

BEIJING — Olympic torchbearers trotted through the cordoned streets of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa Saturday as China displayed its tight grip on a region that only three months ago was ravaged by bloody rioting.

Militarized police stood arms distance apart along a route that ended at the foot of the towering 1,000-room Potala Palace, the abandoned former residence of Tibetan Buddhism's exiled leader.

Local authorities used the event to attack the Dalai Lama, exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, and offer a visible gesture of their sovereignty over Tibet.

"Tibet's sky will never change and the red flag with five stars will forever flutter high above it," Zhang Qingli, secretary general of the Communist Party in Tibet, said at a relay ceremony.

"We will certainly be able to totally smash the splittist schemes of the Dalai Lama clique."

Only a few hundred handpicked spectators were allowed along the route to cheer the torch. Most Lhasa residents were told to stay home and watch the relay on television.

The Olympic torch returned to China May 4 following a beleaguered passage abroad in which pro-Tibet activists repeatedly besieged the relay to protest China's handling of unrest in March that left numerous deaths in Tibet and surrounding provinces.

The Tibet leg originally was scheduled for June 19-21 but was cut to one day following a devastating May 12 earthquake in nearby Sichuan province. Events were scheduled to unfold over three hours but wrapped up in only two.

A 75-year-old Tibet mountaineering hero, known by a single name as Gonpo, received the torch from Communist officials at the Norbulingka, the former summer palace of the Dalai Lama, and was the first of 156 runners to carry the torch

Among the torchbearers were 75 ethnic Tibetans who ran along Beijing Road until they reached the square before the Potala Palace, the state Xinhua news agency said.

Human rights groups condemned the Lhasa relay, saying it could exacerbate tensions prior to a new round of talks with envoys of the Dalai Lama.

"This provocative decision — with the blessing of the International Olympic Committee — could aggravate tensions and undermine the fragile process to find a peaceful long-term solution for Tibet and the region," said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, a New York-based advocacy group.

Journalists from two dozen foreign news organizations — but not McClatchy — were given special permission to cover the Lhasa leg. Under tight control, they were only allowed to cover the opening and closing portions of the relay.

China closed Tibet to foreign tour groups following the March 14 rioting in Lhasa, which left the city's skies dark with smoke. China says 22 were killed, while Tibetan exile groups put the death toll at 203 people. China says calm has returned to Tibet but has delayed reopening Tibet to foreign tourists, pledging again Saturday to do so "soon."

Officials in Lhasa Friday announced that they had released 1,157 people who were involved in the Lhasa riots, after a period of "re-education," in a move to defuse tension over Tibet. They said 116 remain in custody.

China claims the Dalai Lama was behind the unrest in March, and brands the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate as a criminal instigator seeking Tibet's independence.

The Dalai Lama denies involvement in the rioting and says he only wants greater religious and cultural autonomy for the region, which he fled in 1959 for exile in India.

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