Unrest in China's Tibetan areas gathering pace: group

CHENGDU, January 27, 2012 (AFP) - Protests in China's Tibetan-inhabited regions appear to be gathering pace this year, a rights group said Friday, with at least seven demonstrations occurring in January -- two of them deadly.

The west of Sichuan province, which has a large population of ethnic Tibetans -- many of whom complain of repression -- was earlier this week hit by some of the worst unrest since huge protests against Chinese rule in 2008.

Security forces fired into two separate crowds of protesters in Luhuo and Seda towns on Monday and Tuesday in the remote, rugged prefecture of Ganzi, which borders Tibet.

Advocacy groups say at least three people were killed in the clashes but maintain the protests were peaceful until police opened fire. China says two died -- one in each incident -- and acknowledged police shootings only in Seda.

The unrest comes as tensions rise in Tibetan-inhabited areas, where at least 16 people have set themselves ablaze in less than a year -- including four this month alone -- over religious repression.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday said the clashes in Luhuo and Seda were not isolated cases and other incidences of unrest occurred this month.

These included two protests in Guoluo prefecture in the northwestern province of Qinghai, which also borders Tibet, the first on January 18 and the second several days later over the self-immolation of a senior monk, it said.

Local government offices in Guoluo and Banma county, where the protests happened, were unavailable for comment.

Other demonstrations took place in Seda county and Aba prefecture in Sichuan this month. Tibetans also held several vigils and prayer processions, the group said.

Advocacy groups say the unrest stems from growing grievance among Tibetans on issues such as religious repression, a lack of freedom, and a feeling that their culture is being eroded by an influx of majority Han Chinese.

But Beijing insists that Tibetans enjoy freedom of religious belief and says their lives have been made better by huge ongoing investment into Tibetan-inhabited areas.

HRW on Friday urged the Chinese government to "immediately investigate" this week's shootings, open affected areas to outside observers and address local "grievances and growing violence."