BEIJING (AFP) — Tibet's exiled government said Saturday that about 30 people had been killed during unrest in Lhasa, as Chinese troops locked down the city amid fierce international scrutiny ahead of the Olympics.
Witnesses said tanks and soldiers were out in force in Lhasa following Friday's protests, the biggest against China's controversial rule of Tibet since 1989, as authorities set a Monday deadline for perpetrators to surrender.
"We are confirming approximately 30 deaths, and we are even hearing numbers of over 100 dead, but this number we are unable to confirm," Tenzin Taklha, a senior official of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala in northern India, told AFP.
"Right now we are hearing that there are many Chinese troops in Lhasa. There are pockets of people out in the streets right now, but there is great fear among the population."
The state-run Xinhua news agency earlier said 10 people died in the unrest, citing government officials from Tibet who blamed "mobs" for the violence.
"The victims are all innocent civilians, and they have been burnt to death," Xinhua said. It said no foreigners had been killed.
While authorities appeared in control in Lhasa Saturday, monks led a second day of rallies in Xiahe, Gansu province, the site of one of Tibetan Buddhism's most important monasteries, two activist groups and a local resident said.
China's top official in Tibet, a vast region formally annexed by the country in 1951, said the protests were part of a "separatist" movement led by exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama that authorities would not allow to succeed.
"The plot of the separatists will fail. We will challenge them firmly, according to law," the chairman of the Tibet government, Qiangba Puncog, told reporters in Beijing on the sidelines of China's annual parliamentary session.
"This is very clear: This is a separatist Dalai Lama clique, inside and outside the country."
Authorities warned that those involved in the riots should turn themselves in by midnight on Monday.
"Violators who do not comply with the deadline will be severely punished under the law," said a joint notice issued by the Tibetan police and judicial authorities.
The Dalai Lama called on China to "stop using force" and rejected allegations that he and his government-in-exile were behind the uprising.
"These protests are a manifestation of the deep-rooted resentment of the Tibetan people," he said. "Unity and stability under brute force is at best a temporary solution."
Earlier, Xinhua said many police officers had been badly injured in clashes and that rioters had wielded "backpacks filled with stones and bottles of inflammable liquids, some holding iron bars, wooden sticks and long knives."
A Chinese tour operator and other people in Lhasa contacted by AFP said tanks and armoured personnel carriers patrolled the city on Saturday, and remained in place as darkness fell.
"There are tanks and armed soldiers on the streets. We have been told to stay in our rooms... the city is shut down," Wu Yongzhe, the tour organiser, said by phone.
Wu, other tour operators and travellers said Tibet had been closed to foreign tourists.
Tibet, a mountainous region that includes Mount Everest and is more than twice the size of France, has been a flashpoint issue for China's Communist leadership ever since it came to power in 1949.
Communist forces were sent into Tibet in 1950 to "liberate" the region, with China's official rule beginning a year later.
Tibet has taken on greater importance in the run-up to the Olympics in August, which the country's leaders hope will be a chance to show off China's rapid transformation into a modern economic power to the rest of the world.
Tibetan rights groups have vowed to pile intense pressure on Beijing over its rule of the region ahead of the Games, and any perceived rights abuses now would prove unwelcome news for the Chinese leadership.
The protests are the biggest since 1989, when Chinese President Hu Jintao -- who was on Saturday given a second five-year term -- was the Communist Party chief of Tibet.
Hollywood star Richard Gere, one of many Western celebrities who have been vocal in their support for the Tibetan cause, called for a boycott of the Olympics if the Chinese leadership mishandled the situation.
"It would be unconscionable if we continued as if things are hunky dory and everyone's happy," he told BBC radio.
Chinese censors blacked out Western media reports about the developments in Tibet on Chinese television on Friday, and independent verification of the news from the region has been difficult.
But even official Chinese accounts have indicated the protests began Monday, when Tibetans around the world marked the anniversary of a 1959 uprising that was put down with force and led the Dalai Lama to flee into exile.
Those protests, begun by Buddhist monks, grew in the following days before erupting into anti-Chinese rioting on Friday.
Chinese-owned shops, offices and restaurants were smashed and burned by demonstrators.
The United States and Britain expressed concern over the violence, with the White House calling on Beijing to "respect Tibetan culture."
Rights groups allege that Beijing encourages ethnic Chinese to move into Tibet to culturally take over the region, a process made much easier by the government opening a new rail line to Tibet in 2006.
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