ZHONGDIAN, China - China blanketed restive Tibetan areas yesterday with a huge buildup of troops, turning small towns across a wide swath of western China into armed encampments.

Beijing acknowledged that police opened fire on protesters, and it barred foreign tourists and journalists from a vast expanse of territory across four provinces.

In a peace overture, the Dalai Lama - the Tibetans' spiritual and political leader in exile in India - offered to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other leaders, reiterating that he was not asking for Tibetan independence.

China has repeatedly ignored calls for dialogue, accusing the exiled Tibetan leader and his supporters of organizing violence in hopes of sabotaging the Beijing Olympics and promoting Tibetan independence.

Hundreds of paramilitary troops aboard at least 80 trucks were seen traveling along the main road winding through the mountains into southeastern Tibet.

Farther north, the largely Tibetan county of Zhongdian was swarmed by 400 armed police. Many carried rifles and what appeared to be tear-gas launchers. Residents walked freely among the police, and there was no sign of a daytime curfew.

The troop mobilization was helping authorities reassert control after the broadest, most sustained protests by Tibetans against Chinese rule in decades.

Demonstrations had flared across Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces in support of protests that started in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.

Led by Buddhist monks, protests had begun peacefully in Lhasa early last week but erupted into rioting last Friday.

China's crackdown drew world attention to its human-rights record, threatening to overshadow its attempts to project an image of unity and prosperity in the run-up to the Aug. 8-24 Olympics.

Yesterday, 26 Nobel laureates said they "deplore and condemn the Chinese government's violent crackdown on Tibetan protesters," calling for restraint.

"We protest the unwarranted campaign waged by the Chinese government against our fellow Nobel Laureate, his holiness the Dalai Lama," they said in a statement released by the Elie Wiesel Foundation.

Tibetan exile groups have said 80 people were killed in the protest and its aftermath. Beijing maintains that 16 died and 300 were injured.

Tibetan television in Lhasa showed video yesterday of black-clad police arresting 24 men. Handcuffed against a wall, the men - some young, some old - were charged with "endangering national security, beating, smashing, looting and burning."

The two remaining foreign journalists in Tibet - Georg Blume of Germany and Kristin Kupfer of Austria - were forced to leave Lhasa yesterday, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Speaking from the seat of his government-in-exile in Dharmsala, India, the Dalai Lama offered to meet with Hu and other Chinese leaders but said he would not travel to Beijing unless there was a "real concrete development."

"The whole world knows the Dalai Lama is not seeking independence, one hundred times, thousand times I have repeated this. It is my mantra - we are not seeking independence," the 72-year-old Dalai Lama told reporters.

"The Tibet problem must be solved between Tibetan people and Chinese people," he said.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, expressed "grave concern" over a planned meeting between British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Dalai Lama, telling Brown not to offer support to the Tibetans' exiled leader.

China says the protests were organized by the Dalai Lama and his supporters.

Reinforcing that assertion, state-run China Central Television aired a 15-minute program last night, showing how Tibetan rioters rampaged through Lhasa last week; there were no pictures of the ensuing police crackdown.

Authorities have moved to clamp down on Tibet and surrounding provinces, where more than half of China's 5.4 million Tibetans live. Moving from town to town, police have set up blockades and checkpoints to keep Tibetans in and reporters out.

Acknowledging for the first time that police had opened fire on protesters, the official Xinhua news agency said they wounded four rioters "in self-defense" during violent protests Sunday in Aba County in Sichuan.

A Tibetan resident of Aba said yesterday she had heard of numerous arrests.

"There are many, many troops outside," said the woman, who refused to give her name for fear of retaliation by authorities. "I'm afraid to leave the house."

Police could be heard shouting from loudspeakers for protesters to turn themselves in.

Bush Still Plans To Go to Olympics

China's crackdown

in Tibet will not cause President Bush to cancel his planned trip to the Beijing Olympics, the White House said yesterday.

The administration

has, however, interceded on behalf of Tibetan protesters and asked for a firsthand look at how Chinese police are dealing with them.

Secretary of State

Condoleezza Rice spoke to Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on Wednesday night, urging restraint and also talks with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans' spiritual leader, who is in exile in India.

Rice told reporters

that the Dalai Lama - whom China has accused of instigating separatism - is "an authoritative figure" who stands only for Tibet's cultural autonomy.

Americans planning

to attend the Games should be aware they could be under surveillance "at all times," the State Department advised.

- Associated Press