'In the middle of it' - Kiwi's view of Tibet riots (+video)

By Mike Houlahan

A New Zealand tourist who witnessed first-hand the riots in Tibet said yesterday he felt no fear as violence erupted around him.

Dan Collins was one of a group of 25 foreign backpackers in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa at the end of an eight-day sightseeing trip.

Having visited Potala Palace - former chief residence of the Dalai Lama - Mr Collins and his fellow tourists were having lunch when downtown Lhasa erupted into violence.

"I looked out the window and saw a whole lot of black smoke about a kilometre away, in the direction of our hotel," Mr Collins said.

"Then I looked down the street a little further and there was a whole lot of army people and tanks rolled past. All the businesses started shutting their shutters and people started getting out of there."

The tourists returned to their hotel, but found themselves in the thick of the violence, as Tibetans shouting pro-independence slogans began attacking Chinese property.

"They were throwing rocks at buildings, lifting up the shutters of Chinese-owned businesses and setting them on fire, yelling out English slogans like `Get out China, free Tibet'," Mr Collins said.

"We were in the middle of it with our cameras filming, but you never felt much of a threat, because they weren't attacking us. They thought that with us being there, we could give an eyewitness account to the rest of the world ... they didn't have any arms, just sticks and stones and anything they could find on the street they could break something with."

Tibetan shopkeepers wrapped white silk scarves around the door handles of their businesses to show they were not pro-Chinese. Those buildings remained untouched, but everything else around them was smashed, Mr Collins said.

Having seen the pro-independence riot, Mr Collins plans to come back to New Zealand and relate the stories the Tibetan people have told him about life under Chinese rule.

"Not many of them could speak English, but those that did come up to us said `Tibet has got no freedom, China gives us no freedom, we want China out,' that sort of stuff."

Mr Collins said Chinese troops had stayed back and watched protesters, and didn't move to quell the violence for two or three hours. The tourists were to have left Lhasa the next morning, but were prevented from leaving by the Chinese army.

Around 1pm, their guide arranged a police escort, drove a charter bus out of the danger area, then told everyone they would be going overland to the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu.

Strife in Lhasa heightened after the tourists' departure, and reports said up to 80 people were killed in clashes in the following days.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Helen Clark said six New Zealanders were believed to be in Tibet, and all were leaving or intended to leave.

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