Dalai Lama arrives in Australia to big welcome

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, arrived in Australia on Saturday for a nine-day tour that is expected to draw tens of thousands to his talks but he won't be meeting political leaders.

A huge crowd at Melbourne airport welcomed the Buddhist leader at the start of his Australian tour, his first major trip since falling ill in January. Buddhism is Australia's fastest growing religion largely due to Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants, organisers said.

"There's really a deep interest in the Dalai Lama and his teachings," said Alan Malloy, the national director of the organising committee for the Dalai Lama's visit.

"The only two people who'll be absent will be the prime minister and the opposition leader," he said.

Australia's political leaders are avoiding meeting the 66-year-old Dalai Lama, partly blaming scheduling conflicts.

Tibet supporters have accused both the conservative government and centre-left Labor opposition of bowing to pressure from China not to meet the 66-year-old Dalai Lama, who is campaigning to free Tibet from Chinese control.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard will be in China during the spiritual leader's visit on a trip to mark the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Canberra and Beijing and to press China to buy liquefied natural gas from Australia.

Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan told Australian officials during a visit in March that Beijing was firmly opposed to any Australian politicians meeting the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Price in 1989, has been recovering at his home in India since being released from hospital in February after treatment for a bowel infection.

Revered by Tibetans as the reincarnation of a long line of Buddhist kings, he fled into exile in India in 1959, nine years after China imposed Communist rule on Tibet.

Howard told Chinese media during a briefing for his trip that he met the Dalai Lama in 1996 and did not need a second meeting.

The Dalai Lama will leave for New Zealand on May 27.