BEIJING, January 6, 2012 (AFP) - At least one Tibetan man set himself on fire near the restive Kirti monastery in southwest China on Friday, rights groups said, the 13th such act to hit Tibetan areas in less than a year.
The incident happened in Sichuan province's Aba county, the scene of sporadic bouts of unrest since a young monk named Phuntsog self-immolated last March, Free Tibet and the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) said.
Rights groups say nine monks and two nuns have set themselves on fire over the past year in Sichuan to protest against the perceived religious repression of Tibetan Buddhists, and that at least seven have died. Another former monk self-immolated in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
The London-based Free Tibet, citing eye witness accounts, said that a man -- believed to be a lay person -- set himself on fire near Kirti and called for the return of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.
The group said Chinese forces extinguished the flames and took him away to an undisclosed location, and his condition is unknown.
Aba town hospital would not comment when contacted by AFP, calls to Kirti monastery and local police went unanswered, and officials at the Aba government and Communist Party Committee said they did not know about the situation.
The rights group said that a second person also set themselves on fire nearby at around the same time on Friday afternoon, and died.
Kate Saunders, a spokeswoman for ICT, told AFP she could confirm at least one Tibetan had set themselves on fire in Aba, but the group was still seeking full confirmation of the second incident.
"We can only expect that such acts of protest will continue for as long as world leaders turn a blind eye to the desperate situation in Tibet," Stephanie Brigden, head of Free Tibet, said in a statement.
"People in Ngaba (Aba) continue to live under security restrictions. Chinese authorities are trying to control all communications", Brigden said.
"There has been no Internet access in the town since the first self-immolation in March 2011 and local people are fearful that their telephones are bugged", she added.
In Nepal in November, a Tibetan exile chanting anti-China slogans briefly set himself on fire, before fellow protesters put out the flames.
A Tibetan demonstrator in the Indian capital New Delhi also set himself alight the same month, before police intervened.
The Dalai Lama has condemned self-immolations, which many Buddhists believe are contrary to their faith, but said recently Tibetans faced "cultural genocide" under hardline Chinese rule that he blamed for the protests.
Many Tibetans in China accuse the government of enacting religious repression and eroding their culture, as the country's majority Han ethnic group increasingly moves into historically Tibetan areas.
But China rejects this, saying Tibetans enjoy religious freedom and pointing to huge ongoing investment, which it says has brought modernisation and a better standard of living.