By Chris Buckley
A police officer stands guard outside the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region June 19, 2008.
LHASA, June 20 - Tibet's capital Lhasa was under tight security on Friday as it readied to host the Olympic Games torch in a concerted display of China's hold over the restive region.
As a group of foreign journalists arrived in Lhasa to observe the relay, police stood on guard every 200 metres. Trucks full of troops and riot police could also be seen.
Slogans on billboards and village walls both welcomed the Olympics and urged locals not to cause trouble for the torch relay that will pass through Lhasa at 3,650 metres (12,000 feet) above sea level on Saturday before strictly vetted crowds.
"Protect social order and stability," read one sign.
"Harmoniously greet the Olympic Games," read another.
The ancient centre of Tibetan Buddhist civilisation will be on show over three months after anti-government protests and then deadly anti-Chinese riots erupted there in March, sparking waves of protest across Tibetan areas that were quelled only by a massive troop influx.
While authorities have spared no efforts to ensure fresh anti-China gestures do not upset the Olympic flame's procession this time, the stark security surrounding it will be a constant reminder of the tensions left after the recent unrest.
A man walks past two trucks loaded with People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers as they patrol the area around the Potala palace in Lhasa, Tibet June 20, 2008.
China blamed the "clique" of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Buddhist leader revered by most Tibetans, for instigating the unrest to upset the Olympics in August. The Dalai has denied that claim and said he supports the Games. But many exiled Tibetans oppose the Games, and especially the Tibet torch relay.
"Since this is a proud moment for the people of China, the Dalai Lama has appealed to Tibetans not to protest," Tenzin Taklha, a senior aide to the Dalai Lama, said from Dharamsala, the home of Tibet's government in exile.
Contrary to China's vows to allow unimpeded media access in the lead-up to the Games, only a selected group of journalists accompanied by officials was allowed to Lhasa for the relay, and the city remains off bounds to free reporting.
Exiled Tibetans and international rights groups have denounced the Tibet torch leg as a slap in the face that will only further alienate Tibetans.
"Lhasa is a city of fear and intimidation whose residents live under constant surveillance," Phelim Kine of the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch said in an email.
"To run the torch through Lhasa under such conditions is a grotesque insult to the Olympian movement's dedication to 'fundamental ethical principles'."
Authorities have told Lhasa residents that they "are ready and willing to 'severely punish' and 'give no indulgence'" to any attempted disruption of the torch run, Kine said.
Many Chinese people, however, were outraged by the rioting in Lhasa on March 14-15, and even more so by the subsequent protests against their government's presence in Tibet that upset the Olympic torch relay in Paris, London and San Francisco.
With patriotic sentiment fired up even more after the nation's response to the devastating earthquake on May 12, many Chinese will look to the Lhasa leg of the torch as a proud show of their nation's role in modernising the mountain region. (Additional reporting by Bappa Majumdar in New Delhi; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)