BEIJING -- A delegation of European ambassadors visiting Tibet abruptly canceled a banquet for their hosts yesterday and instead expressed serious concern over the arrests of Tibetans who had hoped to make contact with them during their stay.
The weeklong visit by the delegation, including eight ambassadors and five other senior diplomats, ended in disarray with the cancellation of the banquet for visiting government officials. Instead, they held a working dinner at which they expressed concern to their hosts over the arrest of at least three Tibetans and possibly dozens more.
For the delegation, which was hoping to learn about human rights in Tibet, the episode apparently offered unexpected insights. But for the Chinese authorities, who detained the Tibetan dissidents presumably in the hope that the visit would go smoothly, the incident is likely to be an embarrassment.
China allowed the delegation into Tibet in the hope that the visit would ease criticisms in the West about political and religious repression there. Instead, the arrests are likely to increase the accusations that China denies basic freedoms to Tibetans.
Human rights organizations in the West learned in the middle of the week that the arrests were taking place and began calling for the delegation to suspend its visit in protest. But Tibet, a mountainous region in the Himalayas north of India and Nepal, is so remote that no one could reach the diplomats until Friday.
The head of the delegation, Ambassador William Friis-Moeller of Denmark, said over a static-filled phone line from Tibet that the diplomats had suspended part of their program until they received an explanation from the authorities. They received it yesterday with a vice governor of Tibet confirming that three Tibetans had been arrested.
The vice governor said that the three had long been under suspicion for separatist activity and that the arrests had no connection with the diplomatic visit. One of the three, a woman, had already been released, the vice governor said.
The Tibet Information Network, an independent London-based service, said yesterday that it had reports from Tibet indicating that more than 100 people may have been detained.
China regards Tibet as an indivisible part of its territory, but Buddhist monks and other Tibetans have been organizing peaceful protests for independence. The Tibet Information Network said it knew the names of 335 political prisoners in Tibet, up from 240 a year ago.
The political prisoners range in age from a 15-year-old girl to a 77-year-old monk. Torture is reported to be common.
The Chinese authorities restrict visits to Tibet and bar Beijing-based journalists from the region.
Previous visits to Tibet by Western diplomats have also led to the punishment of Tibetan separatists. In 1991, five Tibetan political prisoners were reported beaten and put in solitary confinement after they tried to give a letter to the U.S. ambassador when he visited their prison.