A top official in Chinese-ruled Tibet has ordered police to step up surveillance in Buddhist monasteries in an apparent push to prevent the spread of anti-government protests by ethnic Tibetans in nearby Sichuan province.
Local Communist party leader Qi Zhala is quoted in state media as saying officials should work to "preserve stability" in the region. He also urged police to "strike hard" at what he called "separatist" and "criminal" activities that he and other Chinese leaders blame on supporters of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
The Tibet crackdown comes as thousands of police reinforcements in neighboring Sichuan remain on heightened alert following a week of confrontations with ethnic Tibetans, and months of self-immolation protests by Tibetans opposed to Chinese rule.
Witnesses and exile groups say up to seven protesters died in Sichuan last week when police opened fire in three incidents. Several reports linked the violence in part to the refusal by some ethnic Tibetans to participate in last week's Chinese New Year celebrations.
Western news organizations have been blocked from protest sites, but report stepped up police presence and surveillance as far away as Chengdu, more than 300 kilometers from the site of protests early last week.
Meanwhile, the official China Daily newspaper continues to insist the Sichuan violence was triggered by violent mobs "armed with rocks and knives," and says the police response was justified. In commentary Tuesday, the daily said one person was killed in last week's violence, and says many others, including police officers, were injured.
The publication also accused the Tibetan exile government in northern India and its "Western patrons" of exploiting the violence as part of what it called a new round of "China bashing."
Regional tensions intensified almost a year ago, when a young Buddhist monk demanding the return of the exiled Dalai Lama set himself on fire and died at a monastery in Sichuan. Since then, at least 15 other monks, former monks and nuns have died in similar protests.
China seized control of Tibet more than 50 years ago, forcing the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders to flee to northern India. Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of wanting to split Tibet from the rest of China, a charge that he denies.