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Tibet Officials Vow Tight Security for Games Torch

China will impose strict security on the Olympic Games torch relay through restive Tibet to Mount Everest, as the government seeks to prevent any protests upsetting the symbolic display of national unity.

The torch to light the flame of the 2008 Games will be lit in Greece on Monday and reach the host city Beijing on March 31 to start a relay that passes through a number of countries.

A separate flame will go to mountainous Tibet in an attempt to take it to the top of Everest at 8,848 metres (29,030 ft) above sea level on a day in May when the weather looks best.

But anti-Chinese turmoil that has shaken Tibet threatens to overshadow the torch's journey to the world's highest peak, which Beijing plans to televise to the world. A Tibet sports official told a newspaper on Monday that the Everest climb was sure to go ahead under strict security.

"The region's torch relay leadership team will closely coordinate and cooperate with all concerned units, taking very seriously and cooperating with security and protection work, and strictly guarding against disturbances and sabotage by the Dalai clique," the unnamed official told the state-run Tibet Daily.

The official said candidates to carry the torch through Tibet have been chosen, and the route and schedule have been set.

China has blamed the unrest on the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, alleging that he has conspired to wreck the country's Olympics. The Dalai Lama has rejected the conspiracy claim, saying he does not oppose Beijing's Games.

In a departure from the government line, Bao Tong, the most senior Chinese official ousted over the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, said the Dalai Lama was the "only Tibetan leader with the hope of presiding over a reconciliation agreement".

"Only if the central (government) sits down for dialogue with the Dalai Lama and shows great wisdom, great decisiveness and great boldness of vision, the Lhasa incident can be handled well," Bao wrote in a statement e-mailed to Reuters.

International Criticism

China has invested huge amounts of money and political capital to make the 2008 Summer Olympics a showpiece of the country's prosperity and confidence. It has warned critics and protesters not to disrupt the event.

But now an eruption of international criticism over Beijing's policies in Tibet is likely to bring demonstrators out in force on many stops of the torch relay outside China.

On Sunday, an exiled Tibetan group urged the International Olympic Committee to scrap the torch relay through Tibet.

Tibetan independence activists plan to stage protests in the Greek town of Olympia on Monday, as hundreds of police patrol the streets of the small town for fear of any disruptions to the widely televised torch lighting ceremony and start of the relay.

The unrest began when Buddhist monks demonstrated in the capital, Lhasa, on March 10, the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule, and on subsequent days.

Five days later anti-Chinese rioting shook the city. Chinese authorities said one policeman and 18 civilians were killed.

Anti-government protests then flared in nearby provinces with large ethnic Tibetan populations, leading to violence. Exiled Tibetans say as many as 100 Tibetans died.

Overseas advocates of Tibetan independence who have denounced China's security crackdown have said they will seek to protest against the Beijing Olympics, and especially against the torch relay through the troubled region.

China has said advocates of Tibetan independence and Western news reports have given a distorted presentation of the unrest, and accused them of ignoring the ugly violence in Lhasa and vilifying Beijing's efforts to bring prosperity to Tibet.

Chinese state media pressed that claim on Monday, with the Xinhua news agency saying "these Western media have dressed themselves up as defenders of morality and justice, and then maliciously launched punitive attacks on our government".