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Tibetans celebrate Panchen Lama's 18 birthday

Nearly 200 exiled Tibetans, including school children, ran through North Indian town to mark the 18th birthday of the second-highest Tibetan Buddhism's figure, Panchen Lama. They called for his immediate release from China.

With "'Run for Panchen Lama" banners pinned to their shirts, the participants circled Dharmsala, where Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has been living in exile since he fled Tibet following an abortive 1959 uprising against Chinese rule.

The Dalai Lama recognized Gendun Choekyi Nyima as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama in 1995, a choice rejected by Beijing who instead named Gyaltsen Norbu, 16, as the 11th Panchen Lama.

Nyima and his family have not been seen since although Beijing insists the boy is not being held against his will.

"The child is growing up like other youths, other teenagers in China today and living a free life," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in Beijing on Tuesday, although he gave no details.

International support groups and exiled Tibetans, however, have urged Beijing to provide information about his whereabouts and allow him to travel to Dharmsala.

"I am about the same age as he is. I want the Panchen Lama here with us next year when we celebrate his birthday," said Sonam Tashi, an 18-year-old student, who took part in Wednesday's run.

Tibetan activist groups also called for his release.

"Gendun Choekyi Nyima will be tuning 18 years of age ... He shall be considered mature to take his own decision on whether he needs the protective custody that the Communist Party of China claims of providing him," four Tibetan non-governmental groups organizing Wednesday's run said in a statement.

"It's a good way to engage public to highlight the plight of the Panchen Lama. We are happy with the response the run generated," said Tenzin Tsundue, a Tibetan writer and political activist.

Earlier, more than 500 Tibetans gathered at the Tsuglakhang temple to hear speeches, including by Sonam Topgyal, the former prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

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