GENEVA, April 18 - China on Wednesday defeated a U.S. attempt to hold it accountable before the United Nations for human rights abuses.

The 53-nation U.N. Human Rights Commission voted 23-17 against consideration of a U.S. resolution that aimed to hold Beijing to the same human rights standards as other countries. China amassed support among African countries.

The U.S. submitted a resolution denouncing Beijing's repression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, its ``increased restrictions'' on Tibetans and ``harsh sentencing'' of government opponents.

It was the 10th time a Western government has tried - and failed - to pass a resolution condemning China at the annual meeting of the Human Rights Commission.

Hundreds of followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, holding white carnations, held a silent vigil in a square outside the United Nations' European headquarters here to back the U.S. attempt.

Also demonstrating was a group of Uighurs - Turkic Muslims from China's northwest - who accused Chinese authorities of using harsh methods to crush separatist sentiment.

Meanwhile, China has launched an attack against two spiritual groups similar to the outlawed Falun Gong for fear they will also grow to challenge the government, a human rights center said Wednesday.

Chinese authorities have declared the Shenchang Human Body Science Group an "evil cult" and have shut down many of the offices of Fragrant Gong, the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said.

Like Falungong, the two groups are "qigong" groups, which teach people how to obtain physical and spiritual well-being through Buddhist- and Taoist-based philosophy and martial arts-based meditative exercises.

The leader of Shenchang, Shen Chang, is facing trial and the founder of Fragrant Gong, Tian Ruisheng, has gone missing, the center said in a statement faxed to Beijing.

The government last month shut down many of Fragrant Gong's study centers and provincial-level offices. Police also confiscated the travel documents of Tian's family members.

Based in the central Chinese city of Luoyang, the group is one of the largest "qigong" sects in China with more than 10 million members, the center said.

"China has been cracking down on qigong groups in various parts of the country. Last year, 185 different qigong groups have been wiped out in Shanxi (province) alone," said the center's director Frank Lu.

Shen was arrested last July in the eastern city of Suzhou on suspicion of tax evasion, but when authorities found out he headed a qigong group, they added an additional charge of "using an evil cult to destroy legal procedures."

Shen, whose group has five million members, is not allowed any visitors at the detention center where he is held, Lu said.

A spokesman at the Suzhou detention center told AFP: "I can't confirm this on the phone," when asked to comment on Shen's arrest.

Shen's group may have caught the attention of authorities when 500 members protested outside the Workers' Daily office against an article the paper printed in 1996 criticizing the group for deception.

Luoyang police also declined to comment on the crackdown on the Fragrant Gong.

Qigong groups became popular in the early '90s as scores of Chinese citizens searched for cheap ways to stay healthy and turned towards promises of miracle cures through practicing qigong in light of cuts in medical care.

Many also sought spiritual guidance in face of the dwindling relevance of Communist Party ideology and their disillusionment with massive official corruption.

Besides Falun Gong, Shenchang and Fragrant Gong, the government has also targeted the Zhonggong and Yanxin qigong groups.

In Suzhou city, authorities have set up a 50-member task force devoted entirely to rooting out "evil cults." The group has so far targetted groups that are "anti-science" and promote leader worship, Lu said.

Falun Gong was banned in July 1999, three months after it staged a 10,000-strong protest against the government's arrest of members.

Its members continue to defy the ban despite tens of thousands of fellow practitioners having been detained and sent to labor camps, while hundreds have been imprisoned. More than 100 are believed to have died in police custody.

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