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Tibetan refugees shot dead as Everest climbers watch

Leonard Doyle / London Independent | October 6 2006

Within sight of horrified climbers preparing an assault on Everest, Chinese troops stationed on the Tibet-Nepal border have shot dead at least two Tibetan refugees trying to cross the border.

The refugees were trying to reach Nangpa La pass last Saturday and the Everest advance base camp was swarmed by Chinese troops after the shootout. Climbers regularly see caravans of traders and refugees crossing out of Tibet, but this is the first witness report by western climbers of the People's Liberation Army shooting refugees.

The killings highlight the yawning gap between China's state propaganda, which cast it as the friend and protector of the Tibetan people and the harsh reality of a brutal military occupation as experienced by three million Tibetans. The shootings also revive concerns about Beijing's human rights record as it prepares to host the Olympic Games in two years.

Every year, hundreds of Tibetan refugees escape from Chinese occupation. They try to cross at more isolated passes which are usually unguarded. About 70 Tibetan men, women and children were trying to cross the Nangpa La pass from China into Nepal within sight of the advance base camp at Cho Oyu, which was teeming with climbers preparing for Everest.

An unnamed climber, writing on the website mounteverest.net, said that the Chinese troops opened fire on the defenceless column and that the refugees panicked as the soldiers moved in.

"Early morning of 30 September, I walked out of our dining tent to gaze over towards the Nangpa La pass. I saw a line of Tibetans heading towards the start of the pass, a common sight, as the trade routes are open this time of year.

"Then, without warning, shots rang out. Over, and over and over. Then the line of people started to run uphill; they were at 19,000ft. Apparently the Chinese army was tipped off about their attempted escape, and had showed up with guns.
"Watching the line snake off through the snow, as the shots rang out, we saw two shapes fall. The binoculars confirmed it: two people were down, and they weren't getting up. Then more Chinese army swarmed through ABC (advance base camp)."

Refugees have been shot at along the border before, but this was the first time in recent years that Chinese troops had killed any.

The wide Nangpa La pass, between Tibet and Nepal, has been a common traders' route for centuries.Many Tibetans cross the pass to sell their traditional craft and Chinese goods in Namche Bazaar's Saturday market then return home, but some seek refuge in Nepal or India.

A 25-year-old who survived the shooting escaped to Nepal. He told activists in Kathmandu: "When the machine-gun fire started hitting around us, we ran in all directions. We ran back where we came from just trying to avoid the army. After hiding from the gun blasts for many hours, we climbed over Nangpa La in the middle of the night and walked the entire day on the Nepal side because we were so scared."

Lhundup Dorjee, of the Kathmandu-based Tibet Refugee Centre, said that 42 people had managed to enter Nepal but there was no information about the others. The refugee centre is in contact with the survivors.

Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has been in exile in India since the Chinese invasion of 1959. He has repeatedly said he was willing to engage "reasonable talks" with Beijing to protect those Tibetans who have stayed behind in their homeland. But the Chinese government has always rejected his offer and continues to treat harshly those who flee Communist repression in their country.

There has been no comment by the Chinese authorities on the shootings.

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