By Jane Macartney
Smoke rises over the streets of central Lhasa as police clash with protesters
Beijing, March 14 - One of the largest markets in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, is in flames and at least one police car has been burnt as angry monks and Tibetans clash with police today.
The surge of violence follows almost a week of demonstrations by lamas from monasteries around the Tibetan capital, who have been demanding greater freedom of religion before the Olympic Games as well as independence for the deeply Buddhist Himalayan region.
Witnesses said the most serious display of anti-Chinese feeling in nearly two decades escalated at around 11am when monks from the ancient Ramoche monastery in central Lhasa attempted to stage a demonstration.
Police tried to prevent the lamas from getting onto the streets and a police car posted outside its gate was set on fire, a witness said. Hundreds of Tibetans then rallied around the monks.
One resident of the old city near the monastery told The Times: “It’s very dangerous. Tibetans are fighting the Han people in the street outside. I can’t talk because I’m afraid.”
The nearby Tromsikhang market, built in 1993, had been set on fire and a column of smoke could be seen billowing into the sky, one witness said. The market contained shops belonging to Tibetans as well as ethnic Han Chinese and members of the Hui Muslim minority.
One Tibetan, covered in blood, was seen carried away from the scene by about five or six other people. Witnesses said dozens of ambulances and police cars had raced to the city’s 102 People’s Hospital but it was not known how many people were hurt or how seriously.
Dozens of paramilitary police vehicles were seen patrolling central Lhasa to try to restore order. However, crowds of Tibetans and monks were still demonstrating in the afternoon. One witness wept as he spoke and said he was too afraid to say anything.
The violence comes as Buddhist monks opposed to Chinese rule have launched a hunger strike and two others attempted suicide after troops surrounded monasteries in a government crackdown on the biggest protests since 1989. In March 1989, thousands of Tibetans rioted in the streets of Lhasa, setting fire to shops and causing widespread damage in a rampage that prompted the government to impose martial law.
Some reports said officials had declared a state of emergency today in Lhasa, but there was no immediate confirmation from the government.