BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese security forces fired into a crowd of protesters in Tibet, injuring at least 60, an overseas rights group said on Tuesday, in a further outbreak of unrest in the remote mountainous region.
Sunday's incident, in Tibet's Driru county, was sparked by a rally calling for the release of a villager arrested a week earlier during demonstrations set off by attempts to force Tibetans to fly the Chinese flag, London-based Free Tibet said.
When the Tibetans gathered at a government office to call for the release of the man, "security forces started beating the Tibetans, causing severe injuries, deployed tear gas and fired indiscriminately into the crowd", the group said.
A spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry, which acts as a conduit for questions from the foreign media about Tibet, said she was unaware of the reports, and declined further comment.
Free Tibet said two of the estimated 60 injured had been taken to hospital in the Tibetan capital Lhasa where they were in critical condition.
While Chinese security forces often employ heavy-handed tactics to stop protests in Tibetan regions, the use of guns is relatively unusual.
The flag protests, on September 28, were large scale and had also resulted in clashes with the police, Free Tibet said.
The area has been put under a virtual lockdown with communications seriously restricted, it said.
Human rights activists say China tramples on religious freedom and culture in Tibet, which has been ruled with an iron fist since People's Liberation Army troops "peacefully liberated" the region in 1950.
China rejects such criticism, saying its rule ended serfdom and brought development to a backward, poverty-struck region, but Tibet remains tightly controlled and foreign journalists are largely banned from visiting.
Tibetan parts of China erupted in anti-Chinese violence in 2008, and since then more than 120 Tibetans have set themselves alight in protest against Chinese rule, mainly in heavily Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces rather than in what China terms the Tibet Autonomous Region. Most of those who immolated themselves have died.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Mark Heinrich)