BEIJING — Fires and rock-throwing protests erupted Friday in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa as unrest over Chinese rule of the autonomous region escalated to its highest level in two decades.
Witnesses reported random gunfire and looting in the city and said that angry Tibetans were chasing down and beating Chinese in the streets.
By evening, authorities had ordered a curfew and mustered thousands of police officers with riot shields backed by armored vehicles at crucial areas around the city. Security forces threw up a cordon around another monastery after lockdowns at three others where crimson-robed monks began protest marches earlier in the week.
The U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia quoted witnesses as saying that two people were killed in the protests.
The Tromzikhang market, a flagship building in the old city of Lhasa, burned during much of the day, witnesses said. Elsewhere, "a number of shops were burnt," the state Xinhua news agency said in a brief dispatch. Protesters set tires afire in various parts of the city, and smashed and torched police cars and fire trucks, witnesses said.
Security forces appeared to be using restraint in dealing with the unrest, even amid reports that ethnic Tibetans in neighboring Gansu and Sichuan provinces were joining the revolt.
The unrest presents a major challenge to China in the run-up to the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in August as it tries to project an image of a modern, less-repressive state.
The U.S. Embassy warned Americans to stay away from Tibet, noting firsthand reports from American citizens in the city "who report gunfire and other indications of violence."
Internet accounts painted a picture of chaos in Lhasa, a city of some 300,000 people more than two miles high on the remote Tibetan plateau.
"People were just running about randomly. Some of them were looting," said a witness who used the Internet name "North Wind" on the fanfou.com Web site.
"Lhasa reels under (an) extremely tense situation at the moment. . . . There is smoke everywhere from burning shops and vehicles," said a statement from the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Dharamsala, India. The group said that roads in and out of Lhasa had been closed.
The unrest in Lhasa began Monday and Tuesday when hundreds of monks left their monasteries and took to the streets in an unusual, peaceful display of opposition to Chinese rule of Tibet to mark the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising that forced the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, to flee into exile in India.
In a coordinated series of uprisings by Tibetan exiles, similar protests also occurred in Katmandu, Nepal, and near Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama maintains a government in exile.
By Friday, the protests in Lhasa had evolved from peaceful marches by monks to attacks by ordinary Tibetans on ethnic Han Chinese, who run many of the shops and markets in old Lhasa. Han Chinese, who compose 92 percent of China's 1.3 billion people, have migrated to Tibet in great numbers this decade, leading Tibetans to complain of a dilution of their culture and identity.
Han Chinese shopkeepers near the central Jokhang Temple, one of Tibetan Buddhism's holiest sites, said the day's events terrified them.
"I've been trapped for three or four hours," An Li, a 28-year-old proprietor of the Lhasa Donkey Pot restaurant, said in a telephone interview. "I don't dare go out. The windows of my restaurant were smashed . . . at 10 this morning."
She said protesters were massed near her restaurant on Middle Beijing Road, a main thoroughfare of hotels, markets and stores selling mountaineering gear and Tibetan handicrafts.
"All the shops along the street have closed. I never expected that things would get so serious. No Han people dare walk on the streets anymore or they will be beaten," she said.
An said protesters had thrown bricks at her husband but she didn't say whether he'd been injured.
"They (Tibetans) are searching for Han people from one shop to the next, and smashing every shop of theirs," she said. "I'm wondering why police don't yet come."
Xinhua issued a two-paragraph statement about the unrest in English but censored all reports in Chinese.
A Lhasa municipal government employee who answered a phone call said, "There's nothing I can tell you."
Tibetan advocates abroad said the anger in Tibet shouldn't come as a surprise.
"Tibetans feel increasingly marginalized in their own country. The Tibetan plateau is being flooded (with Han Chinese), and this could spell the end of Tibetan culture and identity," said Matt Whitticase of the London-based Free Tibet Campaign, an advocacy group.
A scholar of modern Tibetan history, Robert Barnett of Columbia University, said the ethnic violence was "an expression of frustration . . . taken out on Chinese shopkeepers" over grievances about the way Beijing governed Tibet.
"China will say now that it's a green light for them to crack down in a heavy-handed way," Barnett said, adding that it may not receive great criticism for repression.
"The international community . . . can't argue too strongly against a state that uses force against rioters," he said.
After Tibetans rioted in 1989 against Chinese rule, Beijing imposed martial law on Tibet for 13 months.
Friday's unrest appeared to start near the Ramoche Temple, in the north of Lhasa, where police tried to stop monks from marching. As the monks resisted, bystanders jumped in, witnesses said. Soon cars and stores were ablaze.
Protests appeared to be extending outside Lhasa.
"It's gaining momentum. It's rippling outside of the main city of Lhasa," said Tashi Choephel, a researcher at the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy. He said protests had erupted in Sichuan province and at the Labrang Tashikhil Monastery in Gansu province.
Radio Free Asia said that some monks from the Sera Monastery in Lhasa were on a hunger strike, demanding that Chinese paramilitary forces withdraw from the monastery compound.
It also said that two monks from Drepung Monastery were in critical condition after attempting suicide by cutting their wrists.
(McClatchy special correspondent Fan Di contributed to this report.)