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China takes heat after tragic flight of Tibetan teenager

The shooting death of a would-be refugee by a Chinese patrolman places the Middle Kingdom's human rights record under scrutiny.

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The two teenage girls were best friends. In their tiny farming village in Tibet, they had stayed up late many nights over four years plotting their escape.

Kelsang Namtso had become a Buddhist nun just last year, at the tender age of 16. Her friend, Dolma Palkyi, 16, wanted to go to India, and meet the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, before taking her vows.

Dolma says she managed to save nearly $1,400 for the arduous journey through the Himalayas. Half would go to the smugglers. In early September, the girls loaded their backpacks with yak butter, cheese, and barley, and finally set off.

Seventeen days later, Kelsang lay dying in the snow after an attack, captured by Western tourists' cameras, that is becoming an international incident and a stain on China's human rights record.

The girls' journey began with a two-day truck ride west from the Tibetan capital city of Lhasa. They joined a group of 73 others, led by two smugglers, making the mountain crossing. For the next two weeks, the group walked mostly at night and slept during the day, at times braving high winds and deep snow.

As morning dawned on Sept. 30, Kelsang was trudging through chest-deep snow. Her pack was nearly empty. "For the last three days we had no food," says Thupten Tsering, a monk who is seeking religious freedom in India. At a press conference Monday in New Delhi, he and others recounted their escape for the first time.

The group was walking single file and had just reached the 18,753-foot Nangpa La Pass when they heard the distinct "zing" of bullets passing on either side. "They were shooting all around," says Tenzin Wangmo, one of three nuns walking directly behind Kelsang. They never saw the Chinese policemen. "When the shooting was going on I just prayed to His Holiness the Dali Lama to kindly save us," she recounted softly.

When a bullet hit young Kelsang, she collapsed into the snow, crying that she had been hit and asked for help. But the nuns themselves were weak with cold, fatigue, and hunger. Still Ms. Wangmo says she made an attempt to grab the fallen woman's arm and pull her along. She was unsuccessful, she says: "There was a monk from the group who said, 'She is dead – if we don't run away we will all be finished.' "

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