Source AP ©

US activists feared for their lives in China

Five American supporters of Tibetan independence who were detained for three days said Saturday that they had feared for their lives while being held by Chinese security guards.

The five had crossed the border into Nepal on Friday afternoon and arrived in Katmandu later that day, ending an ordeal in which they say they were deprived of sleep, food and water for hours on end.

The activists were detained on Wednesday after unfurling banners at the Mount Everest base camp. The banners called for Tibetan independence and criticized the Beijing Olympics, slated for 2008.

The five were identified as Shannon Service and Laurel Mac Sutherlin of San Francisco, California; Kirsten Westby and Jeff Friesen of Boulder, Colorado; and Tenzin Dorjee, who was born in Tibet but is now an American citizen living in New York. All are members of the group Students for a Free Tibet.

"The entire thing was fairly traumatic ... not sleeping for over 30 hours, being denied food and water for over 14, basically being psychologically terrorized," Service said Saturday in Katmandu.

Four of the activists were detained on Wednesday morning as they opened their banners outside a tent belonging to a Chinese mountaineering team, which had been preparing for an expedition that will take the Olympic torch to the summit of the world's highest mountain.

The fifth person, Friesen, was able to run away and transmit video of the protest before being captured the next day.

Police and soldiers interrogated the activists for 12 hours at the Everest base camp before transporting them 14 hours to the town of Shigatse, Service said.

It was during this time they faced the trauma, questioning and uncertainty, Service said.

During the interrogation, Service said a Chinese guard threatened her, saying: "If you don't tell the truth, you will sleep in this room and harm will come to you."

"I asked her if she threatened me; she nodded yes," Service said. "I became very afraid for my own safety and the safety of my friends."

During the trip to Shigatse, Service said they were put in four different vehicles and stopped along the way at different buildings, where they were repeatedly questioned.

Students for a Free Tibet had planned and organized the base camp protest on the eve of Beijing's announcement that the Olympic torch route would scale 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) Mount Everest.

China says it has ruled Tibet for centuries, although many Tibetans say their homeland was an independent state for most of that time. Chinese troops occupied Tibet in 1951, and Beijing continues to rule the region with a heavy hand.

Taking the Olympic torch to the top of Mount Everest is seen by some as a way for Beijing to underscore its claims to Tibet.

"This is just the first of the waterfall of protest we can promise to China," Service said. "This is just a very, very beginning of what promises to be a very long list of very dramatic protest to draw attention to China and Tibet and what is happening there."