16 confirmed dead in Tibet crackdown

Police officers keep guard on a street in Tongren, Qinghai province, China Monday, March 17, 2008. Protests spread from Tibet into three neighboring provinces as Tibetans defied a Chinese government crackdown.
Police officers keep guard on a street in Tongren, Qinghai province, China Monday, March 17, 2008. Protests spread from Tibet into three neighboring provinces as Tibetans defied a Chinese government crackdown.
The Dalai Lama decried what he called the "cultural genocide" taking place in his homeland.
The Dalai Lama decried what he called the "cultural genocide" taking place in his homeland.

BEIJING (CBS/AP) -- Tibet's governor said Monday that 16 people were killed in violence that broke out in the regional capital, as Chinese troops fanned out to quell protests that have spread to three neighboring provinces. Exiled Tibetans say as many as 80 people may have died.

Champa Phuntsok gave the official death toll at a news conference called to explain the response to the largest anti-government protests in almost two decades, which have thrown an international spotlight on China's human rights record as it prepares for the Beijing Olympics.

The toll was an update over the government's previous figure of 10 killed.

Champa Phuntsok, an ethnic Tibetan installed as governor by the communist government in Beijing, described 13 of the dead as "innocent civilians," and said another three people died jumping out of buildings to avoid arrest. He said dozens of people were injured.

A week of protests against Chinese rule in Lhasa culminated in violence Friday when Tibetans attacked ethnic Chinese and torched their shops. Unconfirmed reports from Tibetan exile groups say the violence Friday and ensuing government crackdown may have left as many as 80 people dead.

The government has said the violence was engineered by the government in exile of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, though it has provided no evidence of that.

"Calm has returned to Lhasa and society has returned to a state of normality," Champa Phuntsok said.

"This was organized, premeditated, masterminded and incited by the Dalai clique and it was created under the collusion of Tibet independence separatist forces both inside and outside China," he said without giving any details.

"Those activities were aimed at splitting the country, were aimed at undermining ethnic community and undermining social harmony and stability in Tibet."

In a sign of the seriousness of the situation, Tibet's hardline Communist Party secretary Zhang Qingli - the region's most powerful official - returned to Lhasa over the weekend and met with security forces, the official Tibet Daily newspaper said. Zhang had been attending the national legislature's annual session in Beijing, which ends Tuesday.

The Tibet Daily quoted Zhang as saying security forces "carried out a frontal assault against the thugs" who rioted in Lhasa.

State television broadcast extensive footage of torched buildings and streets strewn with burned and looted goods, underscoring the government's drive to emphasize the destructive nature of the protests without discussing their underlying causes.

Speaking to reporters in India on Sunday, the Dalai Lama reiterated his commitment to nonviolence but refused to condemn the protests and called for an international probe into the government crackdown.

"Whether intentionally or unintentionally, some kind of cultural genocide is taking place," said the Dalai Lama, seen at left. He was referring to China's policy of encouraging the ethnic Han majority to migrate to Tibet, restrictions on Buddhist temples and re-education programs for monks.

He told reporters in Dharmsala that an international body should investigate the government's crackdown on the Lhasa protests.

Champa Phuntsok said that people were hacked and burned to death during the violence, and that the mob poured gasoline and set people on fire and cut a piece of flesh out of a policeman's buttocks.

He said the security forces used great restraint and did not carry or use weapons. He denied that 80 people had been killed.

The government has issued an end-of-Monday deadline for people involved in the violent protests to surrender, saying they would face severe punishment otherwise. Champa Phuntsok said he did not know if anyone had turned themselves in.

He said the People's Liberation Army was not involved until Sunday and Monday when they helped clean up Lhasa after the violence.

Violence Spreads

The unrest in Tibet began March 10 on the anniversary of a 1959 uprising against Chinese rule of the region. Tibet was effectively independent for decades before communist troops entered in 1950.

Over the weekend, the demonstrations widened from Lhasa to Tibetan communities in Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu provinces, forcing authorities to mobilize security forces across a broad expanse of western China.

At his news conference Sunday, Phuntsok said Chinese security forces would "deal harshly" with any protesters still on the streets after a government-imposed deadline at midnight (noon Eastern).

A Sky News correspondent reporting from Gansu said he had seen a "battalion sized" contingent of troops heading in the direction of the border with the Tibetan region.

Chinese officials maintain that no "lethal force" had been used against protesters, but a reporter for the Economist magazine - the only Western journalist thought to be reporting from inside Tibet - told Sky News on Monday that he had seen police and soldiers carrying rifles. He said they carried only batons on previous days.

Correspondents for many foreign newspapers reported Monday that they were being prevented by Chinese authorities from entering provinces other than Tibet where unrest had been reported, despite China's promise to allow journalists free access to all areas in the run up to the Olympic Games. That promise, however, never included Tibet.

A witness in Sichuan province said Monday that government troops had moved into a county in Aba prefecture, where clashes between monks and police broke out Sunday with reports of as many as seven killed.

"There are troops that moved in Maerkang County," said a clerk at the Jinchuan Hotel, who asked not to be further identified.

A man who answered the phone at the Aba prefectural Information Department on Monday said the situation was not clear.

"There is regulation from our higher authorities that the media should not cover this. We will provide detailed information when it is quelled," said the man who refused to give his name.

World Watching, Olympics Coming

Complicating Beijing's response to the unrest, the protests fall two weeks before China's celebrations for the Beijing Olympics kick off with the start of the torch relay, which will pass through Tibet.

Though the Dalai Lama himself has said the Olympics must go on as scheduled, many Tibetan activists have departed from the Buddhist leader's decades-old protest strategies and are calling for an international boycott of the games.

European Union sports ministers and Olympic committees said Monday they oppose a boycott.

The ministers say sports should not be linked to such a political issue and that previous Olympic boycotts have already shown what limited impact they have.

Slovene Sports Minister Milan Zver, who is chairing a meeting of top EU sports officials from the 27 member states and Olympic committees, said "I am against a boycott of the Olympic Games in China."

His sentiments were echoed by other ministers and Olympic committees.

In London, Foreign Office Minister Lord Mark Malloch-Brown told Sky News that it would be "a great mistake for people to boycott this Olympics," and would result in forcing the Chinese "into a much more closed, hostile posture with the rest of the world."

Malloch-Brown called Tibet an "Achilles heal" for China, and said there were "lots of reasons that it (Beijing) will want to make sure its behavior is acceptable," particularly two weeks before the Olympics kick off. He urged both sides to show restraint and begin negotiations.

Posted by LS

CBS and Associated Press contributed to this report.