Beijing, July 1: Chinese President Hu Jintao on Saturday opened a controversial railway to Tibet, saying the line was a 'great achievement' that would bring prosperity to the remote region.
Hu spoke at a ceremony attended by hundreds of railway engineers, workers, Communist Party, military and civilian leaders at the railway station in the north-western frontier town of Golmud. The railway starts there and crosses 1,142 kilometres of barren mountains and high plains to Lhasa, the regional capital of Tibet.
Hu stood and applauded as the first Lhasa-bound train pulled out of Golmud station, as passengers waved to workers, officials and state journalists.
His speech was broadcast live on state television and relayed to a similar ceremony outside the Lhasa railway station.
Trains to and from Tibet were also scheduled to leave Lhasa, Beijing and two other Chinese cities on Saturday.
The first train from Golmud was scheduled to arrive in Lhasa late Saturday.
The government's Xinhua news agency said 2,600 people heard Hu's speech in Golmud, including 'exemplary workers who have made special contributions to the railway construction.'
The opening of the railway 'demonstrates the Chinese government's determination to bring prosperity to the Tibetan people and promote economic development of the vast western areas in China,' the agency said.
About 600 people had tickets for the first train to Lhasa, while some 700 were scheduled to travel in the opposite direction.
Plates promoting Hu's 'eight honours and eight disgraces' standards for 'socialist morality' were hung in the train carriages, the agency said.
Many overseas activists have called for a boycott of the railway to Tibet, but the Dalai Lama has urged Tibetans to 'wait and see' what benefits the new line might bring to them.
Three foreign activists were detained at Beijing's main railway station on Friday after they unfurled a banner protesting China's opening of the railway.
'Tibetans fear the Chinese government will use the railway to further its colonization of Tibet by moving in ever-larger numbers of Chinese settlers and military personnel, whilst transporting out Tibet's vast natural resources,' the Free Tibet Campaign said in a statement on the protest.
The Free Tibet Campaign, Students for a Free Tibet and other groups planned more protests for Saturday outside Chinese embassies and consulates in cities including London, Ottawa, New York, Paris and Dharamsala, India.
The new line makes it possible to travel from Beijing to Lhasa by train in just 48 hours.
Construction began in 2001 on the 33-billion-yuan (4.1 billion dollar) Golmud-Lhasa section, extending an older 714-kilometre line to Golmud from Xining, the capital of China's Qinghai province.
About 80 per cent of the line is over 4,000 metres high, with some 550 kilometres of track resting on permanently frozen ground. Its highest point, at the Tanggula Pass, is 5,072 metres above sea level.
China's ruling Communist Party sees the railway as part of a long- term socio-economic 'liberation' of Tibetans from 'feudal theocracy.'