Unrest spreads in Tibetan areas of China

By Marianne Barriaux (AFP) BEIJING — Police in China have shot dead more protesters in Tibetan-inhabited areas as unrest spreads, an advocacy group and exiles said, prompting the United States to urge restraint from security forces.

China's Sichuan province, which has big populations of ethnic Tibetans, many of whom complain of severe repression, has been rocked by violent clashes this week -- some of the worst since huge protests against Chinese rule in 2008.

The unrest has prompted Lobsang Sangay, head of the India-based Tibetan government-in-exile, to call on the international community "to not remain passive" and "to intervene to prevent further bloodshed".

The United States on Tuesday said it was "seriously concerned" by the situation, calling on Chinese security forces to "exercise restraint" and urging authorities to allow journalists and diplomats into flashpoint areas.

The unrest comes at a time of increasing tensions in Tibetan-inhabited areas, where at least 16 people have set themselves ablaze in less than a year -- including four this month alone -- over a lack of religious freedom.

In the latest bout of violence, police on Tuesday opened fire on a protest in Seda county, killing two people, according to the exiled Tibetan government and advocacy group Free Tibet.

The government, police and locals in Seda contacted by AFP would not comment.

The incident came a day after security forces shot at a crowd of Tibetans protesting against religious repression in the nearby town of Luhuo, killing at least two and injuring over 30, local monks and rights groups said.

China disputes their version of events, accusing "overseas secessionist groups" of trying to discredit the government by hyping accounts of what happened, and says one protester died in a clash triggered by a violent mob.

But monks reached by phone Monday and Tuesday at the Drakgo Monastery in Luhuo said the shooting did occur, and that wounded people had taken refuge there as thousands of armed police stood guard outside.

By Wednesday, though, AFP was unable to get through to anyone in Luhuo -- not even the police and government offices -- as calls were met with a busy ring tone, suggesting all phone lines in the town may have been cut.

According to the London-based Free Tibet, another protest also occurred in Sichuan's Aba county on Monday, but was quelled when police fired tear gas into the crowd.

By its own account, Beijing insists Tibetans enjoy freedom of religious belief and says their lives have been made better by huge ongoing investment into Tibetan-inhabited areas.

It blames the Dalai Lama -- who fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule -- of fomenting much of the unrest in a bid to split Tibet from the rest of China, which the Buddhist spiritual leader denies.

In a statement on the website of the Tibetan government-in-exile, prime minister Sangay said it was "high time for (the international community) to intervene to prevent further bloodshed" following the unrest this week.

"How long and how many tragic deaths are necessary before the world takes a firm moral stand?" he said.

On Tuesday, Maria Otero, special coordinator for Tibetan issues at the US State Department, said Washington had repeatedly urged China to address "counterproductive policies in Tibetan areas".

"We urge the Chinese security forces to exercise restraint, and we renew our call to allow access to Tibetan areas of China for journalists, diplomats and other observers," Otero said in a statement.

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