A Tibetan woman is dragged away by Nepalese police after throwing herself in front of a bus of carrying deportees to the border with China, in Kathmandu, May 31, 2003. Nepal deported 18 Tibetans to China on Saturday, the biggest group to be sent back for several years, bringing a strong rebuke from the United Nations refugee agency. (REUTERS/Nick Dawson)
By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN,
BEIJING - Police in Nepal handed over 12 to 18 Tibetan refugees to Chinese authorities on Saturday in what activists said was a break with Nepal's past tolerance of Tibetans trying to leave their Himalayan territory.
The group included women and children as young as 6, according to activists and an American Tibet scholar who followed the police motorcade from the Nepalese capital of Katmandu to the Chinese border.
"It was a very tense, very depressing situation," Robert Barnett, a professor at Columbia University in New York, said by telephone from Katmandu. "It suggests a major change, in that Nepal will be willing to do China's bidding in this area now."
Activists voiced concern for the refugees' safety. Tibetans who leave the Himalayan territory without permission can face prison or torture if returned, they say.
The U.N. refugee agency called the deportation "a blatant violation of Nepal's obligations under international law."
The State Department called on Nepal to return to its previous practice of allowing Tibetans to seek protection in Nepal. "We are outraged by this development," State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said.
About 3,000 Tibetans leave China via neighboring Nepal each year, mostly to study in India at schools set up by the government of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader who lives in India.
Most lack passports and visas. Until recently, Nepal let most pass through to India. But it has begun detaining and fining those caught entering the country illegally.
Activists said Saturday's incident was the first time Tibetans jailed by Nepal had been sent back.
The Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharmsala, a northern Indian town, deplored the alleged deportations and appealed to China to hand the refugees over to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Calls to the Nepalese Embassy in Beijing and the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Saturday weren't answered.
Communist troops marched into Tibet in 1950 and Beijing says the region has been part of China for centuries. Tibetans contend it was independent for much of that time and accuse the communist government of destroying the region's unique Buddhist culture.
The Tibetans had entered Nepal in April, according to the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet and other activist groups.
Early Saturday, the refugees were put aboard a van at a prison in Katmandu, according to Barnett and the Dalai Lama's government. They said the refugees were handcuffed and restrained by police guards.
The van was followed by a truck carrying armed Nepalese police and a vehicle with Chinese Embassy diplomatic plates, according to Barnett and the Dalai Lama's statement.
The van crossed the border and unloaded the group out of sight, Barnett said. He said Chinese border police prevented those following from crossing a bridge at the border.