There is a growing chorus of protest at Nepal's recent deportation of 18 Tibetans to China. The deportation is being seen as a departure from past Nepalese policy.

The group of 18 Tibetans sent back to China had entered Nepal in April, and were being held in a prison in the capital, Kathmandu, for entering the mountain kingdom illegally.

Last Saturday, Chinese authorities arrived at the prison, and took away the detainees, who included women and children.

The United States embassy in Kathmandu, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the Tibetan government in exile have strongly condemned the deportations. They said the move violates international norms of treatment for asylum seekers.

Every year hundreds of Tibetans walk over mountain passes into Nepal to reach northern India, where their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has lived since fleeing Tibet more than four decades ago.

In the past, Nepalese authorities have usually handed them over to the UNHCR, which resettles them in India.

Robert Barnett is a professor of Asian Studies at Columbia University in New York, and studies Tibetan politics. He is in Kathmandu, and closely followed the deportation incident.

"It has never happened before where the Chinese have been invited to come into Kathmandu, into the prison and to take over the prisoners themselves, to interview the prisoners in the prison and photograph them," he said. "So it is a very big change in any previous situation we have heard about."

Thubten Samphel is the spokesman for the Tibetan government in exile, based in India. He said the administration is surprised at the change in Nepalese policy. "We will be making strong representation to the international community and governments around the world to urge both the Chinese and Nepalese governments to release the Tibetans, and to prevent any repetition in the future," Mr. Samphel said. Human rights groups and Tibetan activists have expressed fears that the Tibetans taken back to China maybe treated as dissidents.

Nepal's government has made no comment on the deportations. Nepal is home to the second largest Tibetan exile community after India.

Nepal is sandwiched between India and China, and traditionally has had close economic ties with India. But in recent years, Beijing has grown in importance as a trade and aid partner and the tiny kingdom remains vulnerable to pressure from both its giant neighbors.

Chinese troops marched into Tibet in 1950, and Beijing says the region has been part of China for centuries. Thousands of Tibetans have fled the region since a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.