A heckler from the Falun Gong spiritual movement, who entered White House grounds as a reporter, interrupted a formal arrival ceremony for Chinese President Hu Jintao on Thursday, prompting President George W Bush to apologise to his guest.
After being welcomed by Bush, the Chinese president was just beginning his response when a woman, who had been allowed into the press section, started shouting. She was escorted away by a uniformed US guard.
"President Hu, your days are numbered. President Bush, make him stop persecuting Falun Gong," the woman yelled. US officials later identified her as Wang Wenyi, 47, a reporter with The Epoch Times, an English-language publication strongly supportive of the meditation movement that is banned in China.
"This was unfortunate and I'm sorry this happened," Bush told Hu, according to Dennis Wilder, a senior official with the National Security Council.
The Secret Service charged Wang with disorderly conduct under local statutes. The US Attorney's office was weighing federal charges of "willing intimidation or disruption of a foreign official," said Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren.
Outside the White House, hundreds of yellow-clad Falun Gong disciples, Taiwanese nationalists, and Tibetan youth group members demonstrated against Hu and his government.
The protesters denounced China's human rights record, its missile build-up near Taiwan and its 55-year-long rule over the Himalayan Buddhist region of Tibet.
"Communist Party ½ Tyranny + Lies," read a yellow banner, carried by one female member of Falun Gong, which China outlawed and brutally crushed in 1999.
"Taiwan is not a part of China," read a placard hoisted by one of around 300 Taiwan activists, who reject China's claim of sovereignty over the island. Tibetans, mostly US-based students, called for independence for their homeland.
In China, Chinese television news carried no mention of the Falun Gong protest. BBC and CNN news reports -- available in hotels and residential compounds largely used by foreigners -- were largely blocked by censors, with viewers experiencing several minutes of silence during reports on Hu's White House visit. Less sensitive footage of Hu and Bush meeting and shaking hands was allowed through.
A US official said Hu's team was probably offended by the incident. "The hard-liners on Hu's team are going to ask, why did it take so long for us to pick her up. It is not a good thing," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Zahren of the Secret Service said the woman had passed through "all appropriate levels of security," including a metal detector. She was allowed into the event under a temporary press pass.
Falun Gong, which thrives overseas despite being largely stamped out in China, alleges that government persecution of the group includes a vast system of concentration camps, where doctors harvest inmates' organs for transplants.
China has vehemently denied this, but a UN investigator is examining the allegation.
In remarks at Hu's arrival ceremony, Bush did not mention Falun Gong, but he said he would discuss human rights. He urged Hu to allow "the Chinese people the freedom to assemble, to speak freely and to worship."