Beijing, June 26--(AP) China started work Wednesday on the $40 million restoration of sacred buildings in Tibet, including the Potala Palace in Lhasa that was the Dalai Lama's home before his flight into exile 43 years ago, state media said.

Buddhist monks chanting sutras presided over a grand ceremony in Lhasa that marked the start of the restoration project, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The five-year project will focus on repairing the 1,300-year-old Potala's foundations, which are sinking, as well as protecting the structure against weathering and insect infestation, the report said.

The restoration would be the second for the Potala in recent years. The first large-scale restoration ran from 1989-1995 at a cost of $6 million. Besides the Potala, the Norbuglinkha, the Dalai Lama's summer palace just outside Lhasa that was built in 1751, and the 1,000-year-old Sagya Monastery, famed for its murals and other artworks, will also be restored, Xinhua said. Workers will also erect a new museum to house relics, the report said, and will closely preserve the three structures' original look.

Chinese troops entered Tibet in 1951 and Beijing claims the region has been party of Chinese territory for centuries. The Dalai Lama, Tibet's supreme leader fled to India after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. In a bid to attract tourism, China rebuilt many monasteries after the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, during which communist zealots ransacked temples across Tibet, often killing or expelling monks.

The Dalai Lama's Tibetan government in exile in India accuses China of cynically exploiting Tibet's cultural heritage to win tourist dollars while undermining the region's traditional institutions. "We feel these actions are merely window dressing," said Thubten Samphel, Secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations of the Tibetan government in exile.

"These actions show us that China will tolerate Tibetan Buddhist culture to help its own international reputation," he said. "We have the contradictory acts of multimillion dollar programs to restore historical sites, yet the destruction of Serthar Institute last year," he added, citing a Tibetan Buddhist center in China's western Sichuan province, which a Tibet monitoring group has said was forcibly closed by the authorities last year.

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