( AP )- China acknowledged for the first time Thursday that anti-government riots that rocked Tibet last week have spread to other provinces, while communist authorities announced the first group of arrests in connection with the violence.
The moves came as the government sent armed police into far-flung towns and villages to reassert control in the Tibetan areas of western China as sporadic demonstrations against Chinese rule in Tibet continued to flare up.
A top Beijing Olympics official vowed the unrest would not disrupt plans for the torch relay preceding this summer's Olympics in Beijing. One leg of the relay is to pass through Tibet, taking the flame to the peak of Mount Everest sometime in May.
The official Xinhua News Agency said "riots in Tibetan-inhabited areas in the provinces of Sichuan and Gansu, both neighboring Tibet." It blamed both incidents on supporters of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.
The Xinhua report confirms previous claims by exile Tibet activist groups that the protests had spread. Foreign journalists have been banned from going to Tibet and stopped by police from entering areas in other provinces large with Tibetan populations.
The Tibet Daily reported that 24 people had been arrested for endangering state security, and for other "grave crimes" for their roles in last Friday's riots in Tibet's capital, Lhasa.
"This incident has severely disrupted the social order, harmed people's life and property, and these illegal acts organized, pre-planned, and well-designed by the Dalai clique," Lhasa deputy chief prosecutor Xie Yanjun was quoted as saying.
"We have to strike the aggressive criminals on the basis of facts guided by law," he said.
Xinhua said late Wednesday that 170 people had surrendered for their role in last week's riots in Lhasa. China says 16 people were killed, denying claims by Tibetan exile groups that 80 died.
Despite an expanding police crackdown, Tibetans have continued to take to the streets to call for Tibet's independence and the return of the Dalai Lama, their exiled spiritual leader.
Hundreds of protesters, some on horseback and others on foot, stormed a government compound in the town of Hezuo in Gansu province Tuesday crying "Free Tibet." Whirling lassos and shaking fists, they burned the Chinese flag and hoisted the emblem of an independent Tibet.
The dramatic footage was captured by a Canadian television crew and aired by the British Broadcasting Corp.
The protesters were driven off by police wielding clubs and quickly dispersed after paramilitary reinforcements arrived. There were no reports of serious injures or arrests.
Police also quelled a small protest Tuesday in Lhasa, an employee of the local Coca-Cola bottler told The Associated Press.
In the Aba area of Sichuan province, people were ordered to stay inside after Tibetans poured into the streets Tuesday, a hotel receptionist said. She said she heard gunshots during the demonstration.
Authorities appeared to be gradually regaining control in Tibet as well as the surrounding provinces where more than half of China's 5.4 million Tibetans live. Moving from town to town, police checked IDs and set up roadblocks to keep Tibetans in and reporters out.
Journalists in Gansu province saw towns that were like armed camps, with police lining the streets and few ordinary people venturing outdoors.
The protests have been the biggest challenge in almost two decades to Chinese rule in Tibet, a Himalayan region that the People's Liberation Army occupied in 1950 after several decades of effective independence.
But authorities appeared to be regaining control in Tibet and surrounding provinces where more than half of China's 5.4 million Tibetans live. Moving from town to town, police checked IDs and set up roadblocks to keep Tibetans in and reporters out.
On Thursday morning, an Associated Press photographer was turned away from a flight to Zhongdian in Yunnan province. There were 12 policemen, including with automatic weapons at the check-in counter. The police said that no foreigners were allowed to travel to Tibetan areas due to the protests.
Putting world attention on China's human rights record, the unrest has prompted discussion of a possible boycott of the Aug. 8 opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics and calls for China to address Tibetans' grievances and engage in direct talks with the Dalai Lama.
A Chinese Olympic official said the violence would not interrupt plans to take the Olympic torch into Tibet and up Mount Everest.
"We know the incidents are the last thing we want to see, but we firmly believe that the government of the Tibet Autonomous Region will be able ensure the stability of Lhasa and Tibet, and also be able to ensure the smooth going of the torch relay in Tibet," Jiang Xiaoyu, executive vice president of the Beijing organizing committee, told reporters.
Many Olympic committees have spoken out against a boycott of the games, but some athletes have voiced concern.
Michelle Engelsman of Australia, a swimming competitor at the Athens Olympics in 2004, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television that the protests and crackdown had added to her concerns about possibly competing in Beijing.
"To be going into a country that has massive rioting and death going on, that's definitely something to be paying attention to and be concerned," she said.
Meanwhile, tourists who were evacuated to Nepal gave fresh accounts Wednesday of the chaos during Friday's protests.
Mark Robert Ward, an Australian who lives in India, recounted watching ethnic Tibetans stone Chinese merchants and hearing heavy weapons fire.
"We ventured down through the smoke and fire and rubble. We came across the military arresting four Tibetan woman . We were screamed at and hid behind a burning vehicle. Then they started shooting in our direction with live ammunition. We ran for our lives up," he said by telephone.
Ward said he saw at least one dead person being carried by Tibetans, describing a man in his 20s who had been shot at least three times.