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China warns of “life and death struggle” over Tibet

China warned of a “life and death” struggle with the Dalai Lama following a crackdown on protests in Tibetan regions, sparking calls for a boycott of Beijing's Olympic Games in August.

“We are in the midst of a fierce struggle involving blood and fire, a life and death struggle with the Dalai clique,” Tibet's Communist Party secretary, Zhang Qingli, told a teleconference of the region's government and Party leaders.

“Leaders of the whole country must deeply understand the arduousness, complexity and long-term nature of the struggle,” he said in remarks carried online by the China Tibet News.

China accuses the spiritual leader of masterminding the protests -- which culminated last Friday in a riot in the capital of Tibet, Lhasa - from his base in the Indian town of Dharamsala, where he lives in exile.

The Nobel peace laureate's government-in-exile says 99 people died when Chinese security forces moved to quell the riot, but Beijing says 13 “innocent civilians” were killed in the violence.

The Dalai Lama called for an end to the violence in Tibetan regions on Tuesday, offering to step down as the head of Tibet's exiled state if that would stop the bloodshed.

China's official media called Dharamsala an “epicenter of lies,” repeating Premier Wen Jiabao's assertion that the unrest was “organized, premeditated, masterminded and incited by the Dalai clique.”

The authorities are keen to stamp out the unrest quickly and restore stability in the far-west before the Olympics, which they hope will showcase China's prosperity and unity.

The Tibetan protests add to the ruling Communist Party's headaches ahead of the Olympics, which include the risk of social instability due to mounting inflation after years of breakneck growth, fears of militant attacks by Uighurs in the remote Muslim region of Xinjiang, and criticism of the pollution in Beijing.

Some activists overseas want the Himalayan region to be cut from the Olympic torch relay that starts on Monday.

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said on Monday that no governments had called for a Games boycott.

But Press watchdog Reporters Without Borders urged officials to boycott the Olympics' opening ceremony over the “brutal repression” in Tibet, an idea French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has said France would consider.

And European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering, a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party, urged politicians on Tuesday to consider boycotting the Games.

“We cannot agree with what is happening in Tibet. The Chinese must realize that,” Poettering said on Tuesday, adding that repression and curbs to freedom of expression must stop if the Olympic Games were to be a success.

But Premier Wen has dismissed calls for a boycott, charging that protests were aimed at undermining the Games, which open on August 8.

Britain's consul-general in Hong Kong called for care in China's handling of a wave of protests and riots by Tibetans that the Dalai Lama's officials believe killed 99 people.

“For very obvious reasons, the Chinese government is going to have to handle it very carefully because it could be easy to get very wrong ... High-handed behavior will not impress anyone,” Stephen Bradley told Reuters in an interview.

Western criticism of China's handling of the protests have been much more muted than the condemnation of a crackdown on demonstrations in Myanmar last year. Analysts say this is because of China's economic clout.

“There's a tendency in Washington to make a China exception,” said John Tkacik, China expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative US think-tank. “Things we would whack Burma, Sudan or Uzbekistan for, we want to ignore when China does them.”

Foreign media are denied access to Tibet without government permission, making it difficult to verify the competing claims for the number killed and Chinese media's reports that the protests have died down.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said it had been informed of 30 incidents in which journalists faced obstructions reporting on the issue from western provinces.

Reuters journalists in Sichuan province were turned back by security forces on the road to ethnic Tibetan areas on Wednesday.

They said they were taken off a public bus at a police check-point at Yajiang, a village on a major highway leading to Lhasa, and sent on a minibus east back to the town of Kangding.

“It is closed to all foreigners and tourists,” a police officer told them. “There is nothing to see now, but you're welcome to come back some other time.” (Reuters)