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Tibetan Lama Flees To India

In the most significant defection from Chinese-ruled Tibet in decades, the 17th Karmapa, teen-age leader of one of Tibetan Buddhism's most prominent sects, has fled to India, officials said Friday.

The boy, who trekked through hundreds of miles of snowy Himalayan terrain by foot, said he had gone to find musical instruments and black hats.

"He has come," said Desang, cabinet secretary in the exiled administration of the Dalai Lama, in a telephone call from Dharamsala in northern India. Desang, who uses only one name gave no other details.

Chinese leaders installed the boy as the head of the Karma Kagyu religious order and used him as a symbol of their rule over Tibet. He is the most important Tibetan figure to defect since the current Dalai Lama and many senior Buddhist clerics fled to India following an abortive anti-Chinese uprising in 1959.

China's State Council Information Office acknowledged the Karmapa had left his monastery in central Tibet with a "small number of followers," the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported Friday.

The report said the Karmapa had gone abroad to get musical instruments and the black hats used by his predecessors and cited a letter saying he did not mean to "betray the state, the nation, the monastery or the leadership."

Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University in New York, said the Karmapa left the 800-year-old Tsurphu monastery on Dec. 28 with a handful of attendants and walked to India, arriving Wednesday in Dharamsala.

The Karmapas virtually ruled Tibet until they were supplanted by the Dalai Lamas and the Gelugpa order 350 years ago.

Dorje and four attendants arrived in Dharamsala on Jan. 5 and met the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, said Tenzin Chonyi, president of the sect's North American branch.

The Dalai Lama's office in New Delhi declined to comment, and Tibet experts said they were unsure of the significance of the Karmapa's sudden escape.

The boy's escape was a major embarrassment to Chinese leaders striving to suppress the separatist movement in the remote mountainous region and establish religious leaders loyal to Beijing.

Both the Dalai Lama, who advocates nonviolence, and Beijing approved Dorje as the 17th reincarnation of the Karmapa Lama in 1992, and China has been grooming him as a "patriotic" lama ever since. He is the only top lama approved by both.

As the only Tibetan Buddhist leader recognized by both sides, the Karmapa Lama represented Beijing's best hope as a sympathetic substitute for the 64-year-old Dalai Lama after his death.

Dorje was born to nomadic parents in 1985 in rugged eastern Tibet. He was placed in a local monastery and given special education as the potential reincarnation of a lama, said the sect's U.S. Web site.

In 1992, monks guided by a letter written by the previous Karmapa Lama fond him in a nomad camp the boy had picked out, it said.

The authenticity of the letter was at the center of a dispute between Tibetan monks, which resulted in the appointment of a rival Karmapa Lama in Sikkim.

©2000 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report