BEIJING – Protests led by Buddhist monks against Chinese rule in Tibet turned violent Friday, bathing Lhasa in smoke from tear gas, bonfires and burned shops, and posing a challenge to China on whether its image can withstand a harsh crackdown ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
At least 10 people died in the rioting, state media reported.
From exile in India, the Dalai Lama appealed to China not to use force to end the largest, most sustained demonstrations in nearly two decades against Beijing’s 57-year rule in Tibet. China’s government in Tibet accused the Dalai Lama’s supporters of inciting the unrest and imposed a curfew, ordering people to stay indoors.
Eyewitness accounts and photos posted on the Internet portrayed a chaotic scene in Lhasa, the provincial capital, with crowds hurling rocks at security forces, hotels and restaurants. The U.S. Embassy said Americans had reported gunfire.
Reports of deaths varied and could not be independently verified, but China’s official Xinhua News Agency said today that 10 people were confirmed dead. The dead included “business people,” according to an earlier Xinhua report. The agency also has said no foreigners were hurt.
At a demonstration outside the United Nations in New York, Psurbu Tsering of the Tibetan Association of New York and New Jersey said its members received phone calls from Tibet claiming 70 people had been killed and 1,000 arrested.
In some of the strongest words yet from officials, regional Tibet government head Champa Phunstok warned today that the authorities will respond forcefully.
“We did not open fire, however we will deal harshly with these criminals who are carrying out activities to split the nation,” he told the Associated Press on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, China’s annual legislative session.
Shops were set on fire Friday along two main streets surrounding the Jokhang temple, Tibet’s most sacred shrine and the heart of Lhasa’s old city, sending out thick clouds of smoke. Young men set fire to a Chinese flag and a huge bonfire burned in a street. Armed police in riot gear backed by armored vehicles blocked intersections, said a Tibetan guide.
The violence, which came on the fifth day of sporadic and largely peaceful protests, poses difficulties for a communist leadership that has looked to the Aug. 8-24 Olympics as a way to recast China as a friendly, modern power. Too rough a crackdown could put that at risk while balking could embolden protesters, costing Beijing authority in often restive Tibet.