Tibet authorities have arrested 24 suspects for "grave crimes" after troops cracked down on anti-Chinese riots that swept the mountain region, with fallout from the turmoil clouding diplomacy and Olympic preparations.
The prosecutor's office in Tibet's capital, Lhasa, said the suspects face charges of "endangering national security as well as beating, smashing, looting, arson and other grave crimes" in riots on Friday, the Tibet Daily reported on Thursday.
They were the first arrests announced since unrest erupted across Tibetan areas, but many more are expected to follow. Some outside groups say hundreds of Tibetans may have already been detained, and the Chinese News Service reported Lhasa has broadcast wanted pictures of more suspects.
"The facts of the crimes are clear and the evidence is solid, and they should be severely punished," a Lhasa deputy chief prosecutor, Xie Yanjun, said.
But he echoed the Chinese government's claim that the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, was the real culprit. "This law-breaking was organised, premeditated and carefully planned by the Dalai clique," Xie said.
China's unyielding response to the unrest has brought demands for a boycott of the Games opening ceremony from pro-Tibetan independence groups and some politicians. The Olympic torch relay across 19 countries that starts next week, and which will also pass through Tibet, is also likely to be dogged by protests.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said his government was considering whether to send a delegation to the ceremony to start the August 8-24 Olympic games.
US presidential candidate Barack Obama urged the United States to speak out for human rights in Tibet following the crackdown. The Bush administration and the European Union have urged China to show restraint.
China has embarked on an offensive to smother restive regions in security and spread its message that the brutal violence was engineered by the Dalai Lama trying to split off the region – a charge he denies.
"The Chinese government is now engaged in a damage control PR campaign," said Minxin Pei, an expert on China at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank in Washington.
"The last thing the Chinese government wants to see is some eruption of similar violence or protest closer to the Olympics."
The outburst of Tibetan discontent against the Chinese presence brought violent riots to Lhasa on Friday and ripples of unrest have continued across Tibet and neighbouring areas.
Beijing launched a sweeping counter-offensive in Tibet and neighbouring provinces that are home to many ethnic Tibetans. Troops have poured into isolated towns on winding mountain roads, and foreign reporters are barred from the area.
In Kangding, a heavily Tibetan town in western Sichuan province, next to Tibet, roads were crowded with troops who blocked most travel. Notices on walls warned locals not to protest and to stay away from the "Dalai clique".
"Resolutely protect the unity of the motherland, protect unity among ethnic groups," declared one red banner.
But Beijing has had a hard time abroad selling its claim the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, instigated the violence, and that Chinese policy is not to blame.
One striking thing is "the lack of understanding in Beijing about how popular the Dalai Lama is in the West ... attacking the Dalai Lama personally is a losing proposition," said Carnegie's Pei.
China responded with clear irritation to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's plan, announced on Wednesday, to meet the 72-year-old monk on a visit to Britain in May. The Foreign Ministry urged London to recognise the Dalai Lama was trying to divide China "under the camouflage of religion".
MAYHEM AND DAMAGE
China has said that 13 innocent people died in the Lhasa violence, and at least three rioters. Exiled Tibetan groups have said as many as 100 Tibetans died.
State media on Thursday reported on the anti-Chinese riots in Sichuan and Gansu provinces which neighbour Tibet, underscoring the bitterness now dividing many Tibetans and Han Chinese.
Tibetan protesters across Gansu province had attacked government offices, flown pro-independence banners and attacked and burnt cars and shops. But government officials were at pains to blame the Dalai Lama, not broader discontent.
"Their evil motive was to cause chaos and disrupt the Beijing Olympic Games," a province government official said, according to Lanzhou Evening News Web site (www.lzbs.com). (Reuters)
China arrests 24 in Tibet crackdown