ULAN BATOR/BEIJING - China has cut off traffic at a major border checkpoint with Mongolia as its northern neighbour hosts Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, Chinese and Mongolian officials said on Thursday.
Road and rail links between Erenhot in China's Inner Mongolia region and Dzamin Uud over the border in Mongolia had been closed to traders on both sides this week, they and others said, in an apparent Chinese protest over the Dalai Lama's visit.
The Dalai Lama's politically sensitive visit comes the eve of a landmark Communist Party congress, which opens on Friday.
Beijing, which has declared its opposition to Mongolia welcoming the Dalai Lama, has ordered security authorities to take extra precautions to ensure there are no disruptions to the congress.
"The Chinese have closed the border with Mongolia at the Dzamin Uud station," said a Mongolian Foreign Ministry official. "They are only letting international trains through, but no local traffic."
The official, who declined to give his name, said the move was related to the visit by the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against China, but could not pinpoint when or why the border had been closed.
A Chinese operator at the Erenhot frontier inspection station said: "The road has been closed", but gave no further details.
A Mongolian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman did not deny the border had been closed. "We are not commenting on the issue yet. We will give information in the near future."
MUM ON CONGRESS
China, which imposed Communist rule on Tibet after its troops entered in 1950, has shown signs of increasing tolerance toward the region this year, freeing a string of Tibetan activists and allowing a rare visit by two of the Dalai Lama's envoys.
That September visit, the first by a delegation from the exiled Buddhist leader since 1985, signalled progress in Sino-Tibetan ties, the Dalai Lama said on Thursday.
"This is just the beginning," he told a gathering of scholars at Mongolian National University in Ulan Bator. "I think this is a good start. We will see how much concrete. We will see."
China has demanded the Dalai Lama abandon what it says is an independence movement and recognise Tibet and Taiwan as parts of China before talks on his future can begin.
The Dalai Lama says he wants real autonomy, not independence, for Tibet but has not met China's other demands. Analysts say he would anger Tibetans by renouncing historical claims to statehood.
"I am not seeking independence. I am seeking self-rule," he said. "But Tibet needs preservation of its cultural heritage, religion and environment."
Some analysts say both sides are looking for a compromise as they fear Tibetans in exile could become more radical, even violent, after the Dalai Lama dies.
"The present policy of the Chinese government is harmful for stability and unity," said the Dalai Lama.
He declined to predict how ties would be affected the congress, which is expected to usher in a new generation of leaders. "Too early to say," he said.
He was optimistic the overall trend in relations was positive "I'm optimistic because the world is changing," he said, adding. "China is a very important member of the world."