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Westerners protest Beijing-Tibet rail

Exiles fear it will lead to firmer grip by China

BEIJING -- In a rare protest by foreigners here, three Western activists who oppose China's new rail link to Tibet clambered up the façade of the central train station yesterday and unfurled a banner that read ``China's Tibet Railway: Designed to Destroy."

Within minutes, security officers detained the trio, pulled down the banner, and bundled the activists out of sight as curious travelers watched.

The London-based Free Tibet Campaign identified the protesters as Kathy Ni Keefe, 36, of Sante Fe, N.M.; Katie Mallin, 34, of Britain; and Omi Hodwitz, a 29-year-old Canadian. They were released after three hours.

Earlier, in India, dozens of Tibetan exiles protesting the railway scaled the fence of the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi and set fire to Chinese flags before being arrested by local police.

The protests highlighted concerns among the activists and among Tibetan exiles that China will use the 710-mile-long railway, which is opening today, to consolidate its grip over Tibet.

Kate Woznow, a spokeswoman for the Free Tibet Campaign, said all the Beijing protesters were foreigners because of the risks for Tibetans to speak out in China and in Tibet. ``We wanted to send a message globally that Tibetans are opposed to the launch of the Chinese-Tibetan railway," she said.

The $4.2 billion rail line will directly connect the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, with Beijing, 2,500 miles east, for the first time. The government said it will help promote economic growth in Tibet, one the poorest regions in Asia.

But Tibetan exiles say China, which invaded and occupied Tibet in 1959, will use the railway to flood Tibet with Han Chinese, the main ethnic group of China.

Nawang Rapgyal, a spokesman for the Tibetan government-in-exile in India led by the Dalai Lama, said: ``If [the railway] is used for political use -- that is, the transfer of Chinese from China to Tibet -- then it would be against the Tibetan people's wish and we will be protesting that."

The railway controversy erupted as the Chinese government and representatives of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibetans, are believed to be engaged in secret negotiations over the future of Tibet. To woo Beijing, the Dalai Lama has said he would drop Tibet's demand for independence from China in return for genuine autonomy.

But such a prospect angers many hard-line Tibetans, who have formed new organizations, such as the Tibetan Youth Congress, which operates in Dharamsala, northern India, to press their cause.

``Tibetans, deep in their hearts, know these negotiations will not serve any purpose," Kalsang Phuntsok Godrukpa, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, said in a telephone interview.

``The negotiations are really a Chinese postponement policy, which will keep Tibetans engrossed and let Beijing tell the world that they are engaging Tibetans. But meanwhile, the Chinese will continue doing whatever they want to do, which is to completely steamroll the Tibetan people."

Godrukpa has been advocating more ``direct action" against China, and Tibetan Youth Congress activists have been responsible for stirring up anti-Chinese protests in many countries the past few years. Beijing has launched a public relations blitz to counter criticism of the new railway.

The state-controlled media has celebrated the engineering prowess that went into building the newest and most significant part of the Tibet line, which connects Lhasa to Golmud in central Qinghai Province, 695 miles north. The train uses high-tech systems to keep stable in icy conditions, and its cabins are oxygenated to help passengers cope with Himalayan altitudes.

The Chinese government also is touting the Qinghai-Tibet line as a tourist attraction that will give passengers breathtaking views of Tibet's soaring mountains and azure skies.

Yet, it's hard to hide the tight control China exerts over Tibet. The province is closed to the international media. Rights groups say monks who profess allegiance to the Dalai Lama often are tortured, and the exploitation of the area's natural resources has gutted vast swaths of Tibet's once-pristine landscape.

Most Tibetans believe that the most potent threat to their existence would come from the massive migration of Han Chinese into Tibet.

Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, estimates that Tibet has 2.3 million Tibetans, but 7 million Han Chinese -- more than 100 times the number China officially gives.

``Tibetans in Tibet are turning into a minority," Rapgyal said.

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