BEIJING – China has branded the Dalai Lama a "wolf in monk's robes" and his followers the "scum of Buddhism." It stepped up the rhetoric Tuesday, accusing the Nobel Peace laureate and his supporters of planning suicide attacks.
The Tibetan government-in-exile swiftly denied the charge, and the Bush administration rushed to the Tibetan Buddhist leader's defense, calling him "a man of peace."
"There is absolutely no indication that he wants to do anything other than have a dialogue with China on how to discuss the serious issues there," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.
Wu Heping, spokesman for China's Ministry of Public Security, claimed searches of monasteries in the Tibetan capital had turned up a large cache of weapons. They included 176 guns, 13,013 bullets, 7,725 pounds of explosives, 19,000 sticks of dynamite and 350 knives, he said.
"To our knowledge, the next plan of the Tibetan independence forces is to organize suicide squads to launch violent attacks," Wu told a news conference. "They claimed that they fear neither bloodshed nor sacrifice."
Wu provided no details or evidence. He used the term "gan si dui," a rarely used phrase directly translated as "dare-to-die corps." The official English version of his remarks translated the term as "suicide squads."
Wu said police had arrested an individual who he claimed was an operative of the "Dalai Lama clique," responsible for gathering intelligence and distributing pamphlets calling for an uprising.
The suspect admitted to using code words to communicate with his contacts, including "uncle" for the Dalai Lama and "skirts" for the banned Tibetan snow lion flag, Wu said.
Beijing has repeatedly accused the Dalai Lama and his supporters of orchestrating violence in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Protests which began peacefully there on the March 10 anniversary of a 1959 uprising against Chinese rule spiraled out of control four days later.
Chinese officials have put the death toll at 22, most of them Han Chinese; the government-in-exile says 140 Tibetans were killed.
China also says sympathy protests that spread to surrounding provinces are part of a campaign by the Dalai Lama to sabotage the Beijing Olympics and promote Tibetan independence.
The 72-year-old Dalai Lama has condemned the violence and denied any links to it, urging an independent international inquiry into the unrest.
"Tibetan exiles are 100 percent committed to nonviolence. There is no question of suicide attacks," Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the government-in-exile in Dharmsala, India, said Tuesday. "But we fear that Chinese might masquerade as Tibetans and plan such attacks to give bad publicity to Tibetans."
Experts on terrorism and security risks facing Beijing and the Olympics have not cited any Tibet group as a threat.
Scholars said the claim of suicide squads was a calculated move by China allowing it to step up its crackdown in Tibetan areas.
"There is no evidence of support for any kind of violence against China or Chinese," said Dibyesh Anand, a Tibet expert at Westminster University in London.
Instead, Beijing is "portraying to the rest of China and the rest of the world: these people are basically irrational" and that there was no room for compromise, he said.
Tuesday's accusations could also further divide the Tibetan government-in-exile and other groups like the Tibetan Youth Congress, which has challenged the Dalai Lama's policy of nonviolence, Anand said.
"This is a way of pressuring the Dalai Lama to renounce Tibetans who have created violence," he said.
Andrew Fischer, a fellow at the London School of Economics who researches Chinese development policies in Tibetan areas of China, dismissed Wu's warnings as "completely ridiculous."
What China is trying to do "is justify this massive troop deployment, a massive crackdown on Tibetan areas and they're trying to justify intensification of hard-line policies," Fischer said.
Drawing from a deep historical reserve of angry rhetoric, Tibet's tough-talking Chinese Communist Party boss, Zhang Qingli, recently called the Dalai Lama a "wolf in monk's robes, a devil with a human face, but the heart of a beast" and deemed the current conflict a "life-and-death battle." State media has denounced protesting monks as the "scum of Buddhism."
The campaign against the Dalai Lama has been underscored in recent days with showings of decades-old propaganda films on state television portraying Tibetan society as cruel and primitive before the 1950 invasion by communist troops.
The escalation of the rhetoric to include claims of possible suicide attacks may also touch upon another sensitive issue for China's communist leadership — unrest in Xinjiang, a predominantly Muslim region to Tibet's north, and Beijing's tight security measures in the area.
On Tuesday, a local government Web site in Xinjiang reported that a protest has broken out in a market in the region on March 23. One official linked the incident to the unrest in Tibet.
But U.S.-government funded Radio Free Asia, which first reported the demonstration, said the protesters were demanding authorities not ban headscarves, and that they stop torturing Uighurs and release all political prisoners. It said several hundred Uighurs staged the protests in Hotan and a nearby county and were taken into custody.
Fu Chao, an official with the Hotan Regional Administrative Office, disputed that characterization. "The riot was nothing to do with the ban on headscarves, but about responding to the riots in Tibet," Fu said.
Last month, Chinese state media reported that a woman had confessed to attempting to hijack and crash a Chinese passenger plane from Xinjiang in what officials say was part of a terror campaign by a radical Islamic independence group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. The reports said the woman was from China's Turkic Muslim Uighur minority.
While the United States has labeled the East Turkestan Islamic Movement a terrorist organization, the State Department alleges widespread abuses of the legal and educational systems by the communist authorities to suppress Uighur culture and religion.
Fischer said China has tried to change the "nonviolent, compassionate" image of Tibetans into one of violence and brutality to draw parallels to the pro-independence stance in Xinjiang.
"If they succeed in portraying them that way, then they can treat them the same way they treat Muslims in Xinjiang," he said.