KATHMANDU—Chinese authorities have locked down the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, after mounting anti-Chinese protests turned violent and an unknown number of people were killed and injured when Chinese forces fired on rioting crowds.
Sources in Lhasa said in separate interviews that residents had been warned to stay indoors after the worst unrest in Tibet in two decades. Authorities meanwhile offered leniency to protesters who surrender to authorities by midnight Monday.
China's official Xinhua news agency said 10 people, including two hotel employees and two shop owners, had been burned to death. But unofficial estimates, from witnesses and exiled Tibetan groups, set the death toll higher.
Witnesses reported seeing a number of dead bodies in and around Lhasa, but an exact toll was impossible to gather.
One Tibetan source reported seeing scores of bodies after Chinese forces fired on a crowd outside the Jokhang monastery in Lhasa, although that number couldn’t be independently confirmed. “We Tibetans had no weapons to fight back. When the Tibetans were gathered in front of Jokhang, the Chinese fired at us. I have personally seen more 100 Tibetans killed when the Chinese fired at the Tibetan crowd,” the man told RFA’s Tibetan service.
Those family members whose relatives were among those killed took their bodies away.
“Many of those killed were young Tibetans, both boys and girls. Many girls were killed too. Some of the Tibetans were killed by Chinese Muslims and then the Tibetans destroyed their mosque,” he said. “The Tibetans who participated in the protests were from the whole Lhasa area. When I looked back, all the Chinese shops were destroyed. I think not one Chinese shop is intact in the Barkhor area. All kinds of stuff were piled up on the main road and burned. Many vehicles were burned and destroyed.”
Relatives of the slain protesters “collected all the dead bodies in front of Jokhang and offered prayers and scarves. Those family members whose relatives were among those killed took their bodies away. None of my family members was among the killed, but I was almost killed too, and many bodies looked familiar,” he said.
Another witness said: “We saw two dead at Ramoche temple, two in the garden, two at the Ganden printing house, and those Tibetans who went to take food to prisoners in Drapchi prison saw 26 Tibetans shot after they were brought in on a black vehicle. There could be about 80 dead, or more, but there is too much commotion here to give an exact number.”
“Several buildings owned by Chinese immigrants and Chinese Muslim immigrants were set on fire,” the witness said. “All those shops owned by Chinese were ransacked and burned. Tibetan shop owners were told to mark their shops with scarves.”
I...appeal to the Chinese leadership to stop using force and address the long-simmering resentment of the Tibetan people through dialogue with the Tibetan people. I also urge my fellow Tibetans not to resort to violence.
A Tibetan witness said late Friday: “The Chinese authorities deployed all military in the Lhasa area and sent tanks. There could be several hundred tanks and they were shooting into the crowds. They also fired several rounds of tear-gas.”
Other Tibetans reported seeing military vehicles but whether they were tanks or armored personnel carriers was unclear. Residents said Lhasa was under martial law, with protests erupting in other provinces, but officials couldn’t be reached for confirmation.
Another source said Ramoche monastery, which has about 110 resident monks, was badly damaged after Tibetans were found running in the area carrying photos of the Dalai Lama and shouting “Independence for Tibet.’”
Local police stopped them, but the crowd—including monks and youths—joined in and attacked police. “The local police didn’t dare take them on, and then the army was called in with tanks,” the source said.
The same source said four monks from Ganden monastery had set themselves on fire in protest.
At Labrang—a major monastery in Gansu province—monks led a protest of at least 1,000 people on Friday, witnesses said. Military and police forces stopped the crowd before they could reach the prefecture government building. The crowd was carrying Tibetan flags and shouting “Long live the Dalai Lama” and “Free Tibet,” witnesses told RFA’s Tibetan service.
Witnesses earlier said paramilitary forces fired on rioting Tibetan protesters in Lhasa, killing at least two people, as Tibetans torched cars and shops and anti-Chinese demonstrators surged through the streets of the regional capital.
Witnesses who spoke to RFA’s Tibetan service reported seeing two bodies in the central Barkhor area of Lhasa. “There was shooting and death,” another Tibetan source told RFA’s Mandarin service, adding, “It’s not convenient to speak on the phone.”
“Now the local Tibetans are protesting in the Barkhor area,” a third Tibetan source said, referring to a central area in Lhasa. “They ransacked Chinese shops and the police fired live ammunition into the crowd. No one is allowed to move around in Lhasa now.”
The rioting began around 10 a.m. Friday and by early evening Lhasa roads were blocked, stranding workers inside their office buildings, sources said.
A Han Chinese resident of Lhasa said cars and shops had been torched, while another said the situation was “very messy.”
Tibetan sources in the city said the protesters were burning and smashing Chinese shops and anything Chinese as they moved through the city, leaving thick black smoke billowing over Lhasa.
Protesters were running through the streets with traditional white scarves in their hands, shouting “Free Tibet,” sources said. The protests swelled to a peak early Friday amid a reduced police presence on the streets.
A third Han Chinese resident said a curfew took effect at around 1 p.m. The protests tailed off around 3:30 p.m., when large numbers of paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP) were mobilized, residents said.
When I looked back, all the Chinese shops were destroyed. I think not one Chinese shop is intact in the Barkhor area. All kinds of stuff were piled up on the main road and burned. Many vehicles were burned and destroyed.
The crowd was joined by monks from the Ramoche monastery. It then proceeded to smash or burn any property with real or perceived Chinese connections, including a well-known restaurant, Tashi Delek, whose Tibetan owners are believed to be pro-China.
“Protests occurred simultaneously at several locations,” one witness said. “Hundreds of protesters were marching in several directions, including in the Barkhor area and Rangshong Jong road.”
“At one level it appeared to be a orchestrated protest, and at the same time it appeared to be very random and spontaneous, with masses of people emboldened by the relative lack of police presence on the scene,” the witness said. “So more and more Tibetans joined the frantic crowds en route. This was the biggest protest so far in Lhasa.”
Tensions in the Tibetan capital have escalated in recent days as the city’s three biggest monasteries were sealed off by thousands of armed police. Police fired tear-gas to disperse a crowd of several hundred protesting monks near Lhasa on Tuesday.
The protests began March 10 when hundreds of monks staged a rare demonstration on the 49th anniversary of a 1959 uprising crushed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The Dalai Lama, now 72, subsequently fled into exile in northern India.
The United States, Britain, and European governments voiced concern, with the U.S. ambassador in Beijing urging authorities to act “with restraint.”
The Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese authorities blamed for instigating the protests, called the clashes the result of “brute force” by China to keep Tibetan under control for more than a half-century.
“I therefore appeal to the Chinese leadership to stop using force and address the long-simmering resentment of the Tibetan people through dialogue with the Tibetan people,” he said in a statement issued from his base in India. “I also urge my fellow Tibetans not to resort to violence.”
Original reporting in Uke, Amdo, and Kham by RFA’s Tibetan service. Additional reporting by RFA’s Mandarin service. Tibetan service director: Jigme Ngapo. Translated by Karma Dorjee and Palden Gyal. Edited and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.