PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech ministers and senior parliamentarians held a private meeting with exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on Tuesday, risking upsetting China just as Prague is trying to boost ties with Beijing.
By contrast, the country's four highest-ranking officials kept their distance from the meeting and issued a rare joint statement stressing that the Czech Republic accepted Tibet as part of China and wanted to maintain good bilateral relations.
The Dalai Lama met Deputy Prime Minister Pavel Belobradek, Culture Minister Daniel Herman and the deputy speakers of both houses of parliament during a visit to an annual conference launched by the late Vaclav Havel, the country's first president.
Havel had close personal links with the now 80-year-old monk and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
The ministers and deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament are Christian Democrats, junior partner in the ruling center-left coalition, and the upper house speaker is allied with them. The meetings were labeled as private.
In their joint statement released by the office of President Milos Zeman, the four highest-ranking Czech officials said: "Personal activities of some Czech politicians do not express a change of the official policy of the Czech Republic and we would regard as unfortunate if anybody saw it as such."
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Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the Dalai Lama was there to engage in "anti-China separatist activities", that they were extremely dissatisfied with the meeting and opposed any foreign officials meeting him.
However, Hua added she noted the government statement.
"We hope the Czech side can always meet China halfway, and take actual steps to maintain the present good momentum in developing Sino-Czech relations," she told a daily news briefing in Beijing.
China frequently scolds countries for giving any recognition to the Dalai Lama, whom it accuses of promoting independence for the Himalayan region. He says he simply seeks genuine autonomy for Tibet.
China's Foreign Ministry said on Monday it would retaliate after Slovak President Andrej Kiska met the Dalai Lama. [L4N1CN2Z4]
The Czech government has been keen to boost ties with China. China was grateful for Zeman's attendance as the only western leader at a military parade in Beijing in 2015 marking the end of World War Two.
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Prague in March to forge a "strategic partnership" with the Czech Republic.
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka and Robert Muller; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Nick Macfie)