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Pro-Tibet group protests in Tiananmen Square

Image: foreign activists draped in Tibetan flags lying on the pavement at Tiananmen Square
Five demonstrators were able to sneak into the heavily guarded Tiananmen Square Saturday to stage a "peaceful protest."Free Tibet 2008 / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pro-Tibet activists wrapped themselves in Tibetan flags and lay down in Tiananmen Square on Saturday, their group said, in a protest that breached heavy security surrounding the heart of Beijing for the Olympic Games.

The five demonstrators were calling for an “end to the Chinese government’s occupation in Tibet,” said Lhadon Tethong, executive director of the New York-based Students for a Free Tibet.

John Hocevar, a member of the group who videotaped the protest, said the activists were led away by men who appeared to be plainclothes security agents. He said he did not know where they were taken.

Officials at the Beijing Public Security Bureau and Tiananmen Square police station would not comment.

The action came a day after three Americans from the group were detained while displaying Tibetan flags near the entrance to the National Stadium, where the opening ceremony for the games were held Friday night.

On Wednesday, four other group members hung pro-Tibet banners from two light poles outside the stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest. They were led away by police and later deported back home to Europe and the United States.

Pro-Tibet activists around the world have staged demonstrations in the run-up to the Olympics, claiming China is using the games to legitimize its rule in Tibet.

Tibet has been an extremely sensitive topic since protests against almost 50 years of Chinese rule turned violent in the region’s capital of Lhasa in March. Many Tibetans insist they were an independent nation before communist troops invaded in 1950, while Beijing says the Himalayan region has been part of its territory for centuries.

Tethong said four of Saturday’s protesters wrapped themselves in the Tibetan national snow lion flag, which is banned in China, and lay down in the south section of the square. The famous portrait of Mao Zedong — communist China’s founding leaders — overlooks that section of the square.

The fifth stood by as the others were on the ground and told passers-by why they were protesting, she said.

Tethong identified Saturday’s activists as Chris Schwartz, 24, of Montreal, Canada; Diane Gatterdam, 55, Evan Silverman, 31, and Joan Roney, 39, all from New York; and David Demes, 21, of Germany.

The situation at Tiananmen Square appeared normal a little over half an hour after the 12:30 p.m. protest. Hundreds of tourists were at the famous tourist site, walking around and snapping photos in front of Olympics symbols erected ahead of the Aug. 8-24 games.

Visitors were required to put their bags through security scanners before going onto the iconic square, scene of the 1989 pro-democracy student protests. Groups of guards stood under large umbrellas about every 50 feet (15 meters), but they appeared relaxed.

There were a smattering of protests earlier this week and were similarly small, with no reported arrests. Foreign demonstrators were deported back to the United States and Europe.