A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, however, played down the visit, declining to give details, provide the visitors' names or even describe them as envoys.

   

"We have always welcomed overseas Tibetan compatriots to come to China, including to visit the Tibet region, to have a look there and to meet their friends and relatives," Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told a news briefing on Thursday.

 

The Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace laureate, has demanded greater autonomy for Tibet under Chinese rule, which began in 1949 and was finalised after an abortive Tibetan uprising in 1959.

 

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in the same year.

 

Positive message

   

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet after
an abortive uprising in 1959

"Among those people are some who are relatively close to the Dalai Lama, but I don't think they are his so-called envoy," he said.

 

But he added that he would like the message they took back to be positive.

 

"We hope through them, the Dalai Lama gains an overall and objective understanding of us and the situation of the motherland," he said.

 

Officials in the US have named the "special envoy" as Lodi Gyari and have termed the current visit as his third in three years. The envoy carries with him the Dalai Lama's aspiration for greater autonomy to Tibet, they said.

   

Advocacy group

 

The International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group where Gyari is a board member in Washington, has said Tibetans hoped talks could go beyond the confidence-building meetings of the previous two visits.

   

"We have always welcomed overseas Tibetan compatriots to come to China..."

Chinese Foreign Ministry

Beijing, which imposed communist rule on Tibet after its troops entered in 1950, established direct contact with the Dalai Lama in 1979.

   

The dialogue was suspended in 1993 but has quietly revived in the last 18 months amid signs China might have decided to allow a subtle but significant shift in policy.

   

The Nobel Peace laureate says he does not favour Tibetan independence but only greater autonomy for the Tibetan people.

 

The exiled Dalai Lama, revered by his followers as a god-king, has accused Beijing of widespread human rights abuses and of swamping Tibet with ethnic Chinese to destroy Tibetan culture.

   

China accuses him of using his religious status to try to split Tibet from China.