South Africa said Monday the Dalai Lama has been denied a visa to meet here with other Nobel laureates, arguing his visit would overshadow the country’s preparations to host the 2010 World Cup.

The Tibetan spiritual leader had planned to come to Johannesburg for a Peace Conference backed by the Nobel Peace Committee and hosted by South Africa’s three surviving laureates, former presidents Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Both Tutu and De Klerk confirmed they would no longer be attending the conference.

The laureates were meant to discuss how soccer can help fight racism and xenophobia, as South Africa gears up for the 2010 World Cup.

But Thabo Masebe, spokesman for President Kgalema Motlanthe, told AFP that "there is no visa" for the Dalai Lama because his visit would draw attention away from the tournament.

Organisers of the conference had not consulted with the government before extending the invitation to the Dalai Lama, Masebe said.

"We in the South African government have not invited the Dalai Lama to visit South Africa, because it would not be in the interests of South Africa," he said.

"The attention of the world is on South Africa because of it being the host country for the 2010 World Cup, and we wouldn’t want anything to distract from that," he added.

A spokesman for the spiritual leader said he was "very disappointed" by the decision.

"It is true that South Africa, under intense pressure from the Chinese authorities, have denied a visa to the Dalai Lama," spokesman Thubten Samphel told AFP in Dharamshala, India, home of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

"The Chinese government does not like any government to host the Dalai Lama because they feel his presence attracts media attention to the deplorable human rights conditions in Tibet," he said.

"African states are vulnerable to Chinese pressure because of huge Chinese investments there and so this is a case of business winning over human rights and good behaviour."

South African foreign ministry spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa denied pressure from China had played a role in the visa being denied.

"What is critical to know is we are an independent sovereign country which makes independent sovereign decisions," he said.

"The decision has nothing to do with the Dalai Lama as a person. Before, we have allowed him in despite our recognition of a One China policy," Mamoepa added.

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