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Sunday, 20 January, 2002, 19:09 GMT
China releases prominent Tibetan
Jailed Tibetan musician Ngawang Choephel
Ngawang Chophel was arrested making a film about Tibet
China has reportedly released a Tibetan music scholar who was serving an 18-year prison term on spying charges, in a move seen as a bid to improve relations with Washington.

The 34-year-old Ngawang Choephel used to teach at an American college, and disappeared in Tibet in 1995 when making a film on traditional music and dance.

China announced more than a year later that he had been convicted of spying. His case has since received widespread attention, drawing the interest of musicians such as Paul McCartney and Annie Lennox

He was released on Sunday and put on board a flight to Detroit, the Associated Press news agency reported, one month before US President George Bush is scheduled to visit Beijing.

Friendly appearances

In the run-up to the Sino-US summit in Beijing, China has been restating its commitment to good ties with Washington and correspondents said say Mr Choephel's release may be a part of this.

President Jiang Zemin
President Jiang is said to be furious
But the decision to free the Tibetan also comes amid Western press reports that Chinese officials have discovered more than 20 spying devices in a Boeing 767 purchased from the US for use by President Jiang Zemin.

The American secretary of state, Colin Powell, says he does not expect President Bush's visit to be affected by the alleged bugging, while refusing to confirm or deny the reports - carried in Britain's Financial Times and the Washington Post.

Both newspapers reported that President Jiang was said to be furious.

One of six

Ngawang Choephel was born in Tibet in 1966 - though his family fled to India in 1968 - and afterwards went to study music in the US in 1994.

When he did not return home from his trip to Tibet, his mother reported him missing. The Chinese authorities then announced he had received an 18-year jail term.

In 2000 the family was granted the right to visit, and Mr Choephel told his mother that he had been on a hunger strike in protest at not receiving proper medical care.

He said he had liver, lung and stomach ailments, and possibly had a urinary tract infection and tuberculosis.

After that visit, Ms Sonam Dekyi said her son was very frail, just "skin and bones", with pale, almost yellow skin.

See also:

20 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Diplomatic silence over 'bugged' plane
10 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Jailed Tibetan receives visit from mother
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