Washington: US President Barack Obama has defied warnings from China and welcomed the Dalai Lama to the White House, urging respect for human rights and cultural traditions in Tibet.
China immediately lodged a protest and accused Obama of undermining relations between the world`s two largest economies by meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader, who has spent more than a half-century in exile.
The White House choreographed the visit to be low key, holding it on a weekend in the mansion`s private residence. The White House later released a photo of a tieless Obama listening pensively to the robed monk.
"The President reiterated his strong support for the preservation of the unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions of Tibet and the Tibetan people throughout the world," the White House said in a statement.
"He underscored the importance of the protection of human rights of Tibetans in China," it said of the 44-minute meeting in the mansion`s private Map Room.
The White House did not allow reporters to enter the meeting and announced it just hours before the Dalai Lama was set to close an 11-day trip to Washington, in which the monk is leading thousands in a Buddhist ritual.
Obama`s daughters - Malia and Sasha - briefly came to the room to meet the Dalai Lama, a person with knowledge of the talks said.
The Dalai Lama voiced happiness about the meeting and said he felt close to Obama at a "human level”.
Obama is "President of the greatest democratic country, so naturally he is showing concern about basic human values, human rights, religious freedom," the Dalai Lama said after the meeting in response to a question said.
"So naturally he shows genuine concern about the suffering in Tibet and also some other places," he said.
The White House stressed that both the United States and Dalai Lama accepted Tibet to be a part of China. But Beijing insists that the Dalai Lama is a "splittist" and has sought to dent his popularity around the world.
China summoned the number two at the US embassy, Robert Wang. The Foreign Ministry urged the United States to "cease to connive and support anti-China separatist forces that seek `Tibet independence”.
"Such an act has grossly interfered in China`s internal affairs, hurt the feelings of Chinese people and damaged the Sino-American relations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said, according to the state Xinhua news agency.
Chinese state television made no mention of the Dalai Lama`s talks in Washington but gave prominent coverage to a rare reception by President Hu Jintao for young people from the United States.
The White House statement supported dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama`s representatives and said the Tibetan leader hoped that talks would resume soon.
China has held nine rounds of talks with the Dalai Lama`s envoys, the last in January 2010. But the dialogue has yielded no tangible progress, leading many Tibetans to believe Beijing is trying to wait out the 76-year-old monk`s death in hopes that his calls for greater rights will wither away without him.
The meeting is Obama`s second in office with the Dalai Lama; his first, in February 2010, was also closed press in the Map Room. Previous president George W Bush met the Dalai Lama openly to award him a Congressional Gold Medal.
The White House reiterated support for a "cooperative partnership" with China, a growing power and major holder of the US debt. In January, Washington rolled out the red carpet for Hu on a state visit.
US lawmakers and human rights groups had pressed Obama to see the Dalai Lama and some voiced disappointment that he waited so long to confirm the meeting.
"This meeting is better late than never, but it remains disappointing that the Dalai Lama was squeezed in at the last minute after much apparent hemming-and-hawing from the White House due to objections from Beijing," said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of the rival Republican Party.
The State Department in its latest annual report described "severe cultural and religious repression" in Tibet along with China`s predominantly Muslim northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Rights groups this year reported a major crackdown on Kirti monastery in Sichuan province after an anti-government protest. The International Campaign for Tibet said police rounded up hundreds of monks and that two elderly Tibetan laypeople who tried to protest the monastery died after police beatings.
The advocacy group said authorities have recently put Tibet`s capital Lhasa under a virtual lockdown as China holds celebrations for the anniversary of Tibet`s "peaceful liberation" in 1951.