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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 March 2008, 17:14 GMT
Tense times at Tibetan monastery
By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Labrang Monastery, Gansu Province

Labrang Monastery
Labrang Monastery has been the scene of two days of protests
Protests in Tibet against Chinese rule have coincided with demonstrations at one of Tibetan Buddhism's most important monasteries, in the nearby province of Gansu.

According to witnesses, riot police broke up a demonstration by monks from Labrang Monastery on Saturday, for the second day.

Witnesses said Chinese security forces fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of at least 1,500 monks as they marched through the streets chanting "Free Tibet".

One Tibetan said several monks had been injured, but that could not be independently verified.

Later on in the day, dozens of Chinese riot police wearing helmets and carrying shields gathered on a bridge near the monastery.

Police officers also turned back vehicles that tried to drive along the main road of Xiahe, the town where the monastery is located.

'Tear gas'

It was the second consecutive day of protests at Labrang Monastery, which is surrounded by snow-covered mountains and pine forests.

Late on Saturday, the atmosphere was calm, but tense.

Map
One monk said: "At least 1,500 people participated in a demonstration and at about two o'clock the police used tear gas."

He said he was protesting because he wants to see a "free Tibet".

"Everyone wants that," added the monk, dressed in a crimson robe.

He said he was hopeful that one day his dream would be fulfilled, although he does know whether he will take to the streets again.

Under surveillance

The BBC has also learned that the situation is tense in Gansu's next-door province of Qinghai, which also has a large Tibetan population.

Security forces were monitoring monasteries in the region, according to a government official, who did not want to be identified.

Protesters
Hundreds of monks took to the streets, defying Chinese authorities
But Labrang Monastery appears to have been the scene of the largest demonstrations.

Founded in 1709, it lies in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in south-western Gansu.

It is situated along a narrow valley, lined by villages and monasteries.

Although the area is not in Tibet proper, it is located on the edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, and Tibetans are the main ethnic group.

Police presence

As we drew near to the monastery, there was an indication of just how tense the situation had become.

We passed a convoy of police vehicles and army trucks driving at speed away from Xiahe.

Pilgrims
Tibetans form the main ethnic group in this area of Gansu Province
There were other police officers stationed along the road.

Despite the protests, pilgrims still made their way to Labrang Monastery on Saturday.

They could be seen turning prayer wheels in a giant square.

There was also time for laughter; a street performer dressed in a cowboy hat and sunglasses entertained monks and ordinary Tibetans.

But as we left Xiahe, it was clear Saturday was not just another ordinary day in the town - riot police were still stationed on the bridge.



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