BEIJING -- A major protest erupted yesterday in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, with at least 1,000 demonstrators throwing stones at government buildings and police responding with tear gas and perhaps gunfire, Western travelers from there said last night.
The unrest, which began yesterday morning and continued into the evening, was provoked by price increases and taxes, the Westerners said in telephone interviews.
But it also likely was aimed at the bitter issue of Chinese rule of the Himalayan region, for Sunday marked the anniversary of China's "peaceful liberation" of Tibet in 1951 -- which many Tibetans still view as an illegal invasion of their homeland.
Small-scale demonstrations for independence regularly break out in Lhasa and are usually crushed quickly. But yesterday's protest appears to have been the most serious unrest there since 1989. Those demonstrations prompted China to place Tibet under martial law for 13 months.
Yesterday's protest came less than two weeks before President Clinton must decide whether to place conditions on the renewal of China's most-favored-nation trading status with the United States, a decision in which China's human rights abuses and its harsh rule in Tibet are key concerns.
Protesters yesterday began their demonstration peacefully, and police initially did not take action against them, the Western travelers said. But when the crowd did not disperse by early evening, police began throwing hundreds of tear gas canisters, said the Westerners, who requested anonymity.
Some of the travelers also reported hearing short bursts of what they believe was gunfire. The Tibet Information Network, a London-based monitoring group, also said last night there were unconfirmed reports of gunfire and of one person killed.
The travelers said at least 1,000 protesters were involved, many of them women and children. But the London group said 3,000 to 4,000 Tibetans participated.
Lhasa was quiet late last night, the travelers said. But they added that foreign visitors were not being allowed to leave their hotels.
Regional government offices could not be contacted last night. Beijing-based foreign reporters are rarely allowed to visit Tibet.
Yesterday's protest followed the arrests last week of at least three Tibetans who wanted to contact a European Community delegation during its human rights fact-finding tour of Tibet.
The delegation, representing 12 nations and including eight ambassadors, canceled their official farewell banquet Saturday night with their Chinese hosts after a Tibet vice governor confirmed the three arrests.
The Tibetan official claimed that the three were not arrested in connection with the delegation's visit, but had been under suspicion for involvement with an independence movement, the Danish ambassador to China, William Friis-Moeller, said last night.