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Dalai Lama ban halts conference

Dalai Lama in India, 11 March
Beijing opposed the planned visit of the Dalai Lama to South Africa

A peace conference for Nobel laureates in South Africa has been postponed indefinitely after Pretoria refused the Dalai Lama a visa, organisers say.

This week's meeting in Johannesburg was linked to the 2010 Football World Cup, which the country is hosting.

A storm of controversy erupted over the ban, with the government being accused of bowing to Chinese pressure.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former South African President FW de Klerk pulled out of the meeting in protest.

Despite the controversy surrounding the decision, government spokesman Thabo Masebe confirmed that no visa would be issued "between now and the World Cup".

Saying the move did not amount to a ban, he told the BBC that no other government had forced the decision on South Africa.

The visa had been declined because the Dalai Lama's presence "would not be in the best interests of South Africa at this time", he said.

The government spokesman told Reuters news agency that the presence of the Dalai Lama risked distracting attention from the World Cup.

'Spirit of peace'

The conference, scheduled for Friday, was intended to discuss football's role in fighting racism and xenophobia.

But the chairman of the South Africa 2010 Organising Committee said the conference was being postponed indefinitely.

"The convenors have... decided in the spirit of peace to postpone the South African peace conference to ensure it is held under conducive conditions," Irvin Khoza was quoted as saying by AFP news agency.

Mr Khoza said the government had "persuaded" the Dalai Lama to postpone his visit until after the football championship.

Mr Mandela's grandson, one of the conference organisers, expressed his disappointment at its cancellation.

Mandla Mandela: "It's a sad day for South Africa"

"I am very saddened today to see that someone like the Dalai Lama, who all our laureates hold highly, has been turned down on their visa application," Mandla Mandela told a press conference.

"This rejection by the government... is really tainting our own effort of democracy. It's a sad day for South Africa, and it's a sad day for Africa."

Among the confirmed guests for the conference were former president of Finland Martti Ahtisaari, Queen Rania of Jordan and South Africa's former President Nelson Mandela.

'Disgraceful'

Archbishop Tutu has branded the government's decision as "disgraceful" and accused the government of "shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure", a sentiment echoed in the local media.

Chinese officials in Pretoria said Beijing had warned against allowing the Dalai Lama into the country, saying it would harm bilateral relations.

The incident is a huge embarrassment for the South African government, which has placed a lot of importance on democracy and human rights since the end of apartheid in 1994, our correspondent Peter Biles reports from Johannesburg.

He says on this occasion, the relationship between South Africa and China - the business relationship in particular - appears to be more important.

Beijing says the Dalai Lama is pushing for Tibetan independence, and has stirred up unrest in the region.

But the Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 during an uprising against Chinese rule, has said he only wants limited autonomy for his homeland.



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