Workers install a billboard in preparation for the Olympic torch relay in Lhasa
LHASA, China (AFP) — The Olympic torch relay made its way through Tibet's capital Saturday amid heavy security three months after deadly riots against Chinese rule, in a move condemned by rights groups.
Hand-picked spectators cheered runners as they carried the torch through Lhasa, after the relay started in front of Norbulingka, the former summer palace of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.
Paramilitary police kept a close watch from the ground and from surrounding buildings, while the area was closed off to everyone except those given special passes to attend the relay, an AFP photographer witnessed.
Many locals were told to stay at home, and shops along the relay route in the remote, Himalayan city were closed to the public.
"We are not supposed to leave the hotel to watch the relay, so we are staying inside," an employee at the Tibet International Hotel told AFP.
China's rule over Tibet drew international concern following a massive crackdown on unrest that erupted in Lhasa in March and then spread to other areas of western China with Tibetan populations.
Exiled Tibetan leaders say 203 people died in the clampdown, while China has reported killing one Tibetan "insurgent" and says "rioters" were responsible for 21 deaths.
The crackdown sparked international protests that targeted and disrupted the torch's month-long global journey in April, before arriving in China ahead of the Beijing Games in August.
Pro-Tibet activists argued that the leg in Lhasa should have been cancelled because of the unrest.
China released 1,157 people who were involved in the riots in Lhasa, the official Xinhua news agency said on the eve of the relay, a move seen as an attempt to defuse tension about the event.
On Saturday, spectactors in the capital cheered "Good Luck Beijing" and "Good wishes for the Olympics" in unison as Tibetan mountaineering hero Gonpo set off with the torch.
The 75-year-old handed it over to Li Suzhi, the head of the military hospital in Lhasa, while the last torch bearer was expected to be Caidan Zhuoma, a famous Tibetan singer.
The three-hour relay through the city was due to finish in front of the Potala Palace, another former residence of the Dalai Lama and Lhasa's most famous building, around noon.
The Chinese government shortened the original relay route in Tibet to just one day instead of three. It later cut the event further from eight hours to three, citing last month's massive earthquake.
Human Rights in China, a New York-based rights group, said Saturday it was "deeply concerned" by the government's decision to send the torch to Tibet.
"This provocative decision -- with the blessing of the International Olympic Committee -- could aggravate tensions and undermine the fragile process to find a peaceful long-term solution for Tibet and the region," said executive director Sharon Hom.
"Sending the torch into the highly combustive atmosphere of Lhasa is the height of irresponsibility," said Anne Holmes, acting director of the London-based Free Tibet Campaign.
Courts on Thursday and Friday handed down "punishments" to 12 people involved in the March unrest, Xinhua news agency reported earlier, bringing to 42 the number punished so far.
The unrest began with monks leading peaceful protests on March 10 in Lhasa to mark the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. The protests erupted into widespread rioting days later, then spread to other areas.
No monks were seen around the Potala Palace, whose windows stayed closed, and in neighbouring areas.
One taxi driver, who refused to give his name, on Friday said he thought they had been told to stay in their monasteries.
"They all stay in their monasteries and they can't go out," he said.