Monks from one of Tibetan Buddhism's most sacred temples defied China's crackdown to protest in front of visiting foreign reporters in Lhasa on Thursday, voicing their support for the Dalai Lama.
The protest, embarrassing for China, came as it again refused to hold talks with the exiled spiritual leader, after U.S. President George W Bush added his voice to calls for dialogue in an effort to solve the Tibetan crisis.
Two weeks of deadly demonstrations by Tibetans against China's rule of the remote Himalayan region have angered authorities in Beijing and put them under international pressure as they prepare to host the Olympics in August.
China has insisted its response to the protests, the biggest challenge to its rule of Tibet in decades, has been restrained and that it has brought the situation under control.
However, the protest by several dozen monks at the Jokhang temple in Lhasa, Tibet's capital, indicated resentment over Chinese rule had not been extinguished.
"We want the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet, we want to be free," the monks yelled, according to one of the 26 journalists who had been brought to Lhasa for a government-controlled tour of the capital.
The monks shouted down a Chinese official who was briefing the journalists on the unrest and denounced him as a "liar."
The protest was also reported by Japan's Kyodo news agency and other media organizations on the tour, while China's state-run Xinhua news agency carried a brief dispatch on it without mentioning the monks' statements.
Kyodo said about "30 young monks" were involved, while the journalist who spoke to AFP estimated the number to be between 50 and 60.
After several minutes, the foreign reporters were ushered from the scene by their Chinese minders.
China brought the foreign media delegation to Lhasa on Wednesday for a three-day trip following international pressure to allow independent reporting from the Tibetan capital, after it was sealed off due to the unrest.
The protests began in Lhasa on March 10 to mark the anniversary of a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet, an event that saw the Dalai Lama flee to India where he has since lived in exile.
The protests erupted into widespread rioting in Lhasa on March 14, and spread to neighboring Chinese provinces populated by Tibetans.
China says rioters killed 18 innocent civilians and two police officers, while exiled Tibetan leaders have put the death toll from the Chinese crackdown at between 135 and 140, with another 1,000 people injured and many detained.
On Wednesday, Bush telephoned Chinese President Hu Jintao to express his concern over the unrest and call for talks between China and the Dalai Lama's representatives.
However Hu reiterated Beijing's position that the Dalai Lama was fomenting the unrest and trying to sabotage the Beijing Olympics, according to a Chinese foreign ministry statement.
No talks were possible until the Dalai Lama gave up his independence push for Tibet and stopped "fanning and masterminding" the ongoing Tibetan unrest, Hu told Bush, according to the statement.
"Especially the Dalai Lama must stop... activities to sabotage the Beijing Olympic Games," Hu said.
Bush's phone call, which broke his silence on the issue, added to concerns expressed by other world leaders in recent days over Tibet, including those of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.© Wire reports