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VIENNA -- Up to 10,000 people came out to greet the Dalai Lama on Saturday after Vienna ignored warnings from China that ties with Beijing could be harmed by hosting the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
China made its objections clear to the 76-year-old Nobel Peace Laureate's meetings with Austrian leaders but Chancellor Werner Faymann said he would decide whom to meet.
The Dalai Lama, who is on an 11-day visit to Austria with the prime minister of Tibet's government-in-exile Lobsang Sangay, spoke at Vienna's historic Heldenplatz (Heroes' Square) for about 30 minutes to a crowd of 10,000, organisers said.
Speaking from a stand emblazoned with the words "Tibet needs you now", he underscored the importance of protecting Buddhist culture, the environment and human rights.
"Our time will come, it is close. Democracy is universal," said Sangay, who spoke before the Dalai Lama.
He referred to the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled veteran dictators in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia as well as Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi who was released from seven straight years of house arrest in November 2010 and has now been issued with a passport, enabling her to travel abroad for the first time in 24 years.
"All the promises that were made in 2008 at the time of the Olympic games have been broken. The Tibetans are in a minority in their own region," a member of the Save Tibet organisation who gave her name as Erika told AFP at the rally.
The Dalai Lama met Faymann earlier Saturday, a day after saying he was open to dialogue with China and calling for real autonomy for Tibet.
The social democrat chancellor, however, dismissed the warnings from Beijing voiced Monday by its ambassador to Vienna and repeated Saturday by the foreign ministry.
"I answer the question of whom I meet myself, and that goes for the Dalai Lama," he said. "Austria is a country which has always shown itself to be on the side of human rights, and I alone am responsible for my agenda."
Calling their meeting "a clear political signal for human rights, non-violence and dialogue and against oppression," Faymann said he was personally interested in meeting such an "eminent figure".
China condemned the talks as "a severe interference with China's internal affairs" which "hurt the feelings of Chinese people", the state Xinhua news agency quoted a foreign ministry spokesman as saying Saturday.
The Dalai Lama was "a political exile who has long been engaged in anti-China secessionist activities in the name of religion", spokesman Hong Lei said.
The foreign ministry in Beijing and the Chinese Embassy in Austria would "both lodge solemn representations to the Austrian side", he said, warning of the impact on ties between the two countries.
Chinese ambassador to Vienna Shi Mingde said on Monday that Austria should not offer a platform to the Dalai Lama's "separatist tendencies", warning that it would not be beneficial to relations with Beijing.
The Dalai Lama told journalists on arrival in Vienna Friday that he wanted a solution with mutual benefit for Tibet and China.
Sangay stressed that it was not a question of securing independence for Tibet but that the region aspired to real autonomy within the Chinese constitution.
The Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since 1959, has a long relationship with Austria and visits regularly -- the last time in 2007.
As a young man, one of his teachers in Lhasa was Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, whose autobiography inspired the 1999 film "Seven Years in Tibet" with Brad Pitt.
Austria has also released a special stamp in the Dalai Lama's honour.
China has imposed tight security to contain simmering discontent in Tibetan regions since 2008, when deadly rioting against Chinese rule broke out in Lhasa and spread to neighbouring Tibetan-inhabited regions.