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In Tibet, the CIA-trained Tibetans were attempting to link up with the indigenous resistance, the Chushi Gangdrug or 'Four Rivers, Six Mountain Ranges' movement, which controlled swathes of southern Tibet. As the Chinese Communists tightened their control in the late Fifties, an increasingly violent war developed between the Tibetan rebels and Mao Zedong's People's Liberation Army.

Almost 300 Tibetans were trained in the Rocky Mountains, many being parachuted into Tibet from US planes during covert overflights. Their survival rate was extremely low, and the only living member of the first mission, Bapa Legshay, has described the operation as 'like throwing meat into the mouth of a tiger'. 'We had made up our minds to die,' he said. 'We had been given cyanide capsules so that we wouldn't be caught alive by the Chinese.'

In March 1959, the Dalai Lama escaped from the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, disguised as one of his own bodyguards. Accompanied by his senior officials, he rode on horseback towards the border with India. It was here that the American connection became especially useful, albeit in a different form from the romanticised version of his escape found in the recent spate of Hollywood films about Tibet.

Using a hand-cranked Morse radio, Athar, a member of the US-trained Tibetan resistance, sent a message to Washington asking for political asylum in India for the Dalai Lama. It was received late on a Saturday night by a senior CIA officer, John Greaney, who immediately put through an urgent call to his boss. Four hours later, the CIA's man in New Delhi sent a wire back to Washington saying that the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had granted asylum to the Dalai Lama and his entourage.

In the Sixties, ST Circus changed tack. Instead of training selected Tibetans in the United States, the CIA decided to set up a larger operation in Mustang, a mountainous spur of land which juts out of Nepal into southern Tibet. Groups of Tibetans would be armed with mortars, carbines and 55mm recoil-less rifles, and from there would set up guerrilla units and conduct raids inside Tibet. Recently declassified US intelligence documents show that the CIA was spending more than $1.7 million annually on this operation.

Lhamo Tsering now had a difficult job on his hands. As rumours of the new Mustang base spread among the 100,000 Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal, they began to make their way there in their hundreds, anxious to fight for the freedom of their motherland. But this coincided with a ban by President Eisenhower on covert overflights - following the shooting down of a U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in May 1960 - which meant that supplies could not be dropped to the Tibetan rebels.

'It was a terrible situation,' says Tenzing Sonam. 'There were more than 2,000 people up in the mountains with nothing to eat. They were even boiling their shoes and eating the leather. People died. There was nothing my father and the other leaders could do until later that year the Americans made their first drop of arms and supplies.'

During the Sixties, the Mustang guerrillas were organised along the lines of a proper army, and conducted repeated raids into Tibet. The most successful raid, on the Xinjiang-Lhasa highway in 1961, resulted in the capture of a significant haul of documents.

Forty armed horsemen ambushed a Chinese military convoy. 'The truck came to a stop,' one fighter, Acho, remembers. 'The driver was shot in the eye, his brains splattered behind him and the truck came to a stop. The engine was still running. Then all of us fired at it. There was one woman, a very high-ranking officer, with a blue sack full of documents. This was carefully collected by our leader.'

The documents showed for the first time the extent of the famine and unrest in both China and Tibet created by Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward, and the causes of the Sino-Soviet split. Ken Knaus, a CIA officer, describes the contents of the blue sack as 'one of the greatest intelligence hauls in the history of the agency'.

Nevertheless, the activities of the Mustang freedom fighters were of limited effectiveness. The guerrillas were useful to the US principally for their nuisance value against the Chinese, and their ability to supply intelligence about a country that was closed to the outside world. They never managed to establish a proper resistance army inside Tibet, since they did not have a strong enough level of military backing.

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