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TAGONG, China (Reuters) - Chinese police have discovered explosives under a bridge in restive Tibet, sources said on Tuesday, as ethnic Tibetan villages high in the grasslands of western China faced a tense traditional New Year.
Almost a year after deadly riots erupted in Tibetan capital Lhasa and triggered unrest in neighboring provinces, Chinese security forces remain on high alert a day before the holiday, which varies from year to year and this year begins on Wednesday.
The heightened security comes ahead of another sensitive date -- the 50th anniversary of the exile of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who fled to India after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.
Police recently found several kilograms of explosives under a bridge in Tibet's eastern Changdu, or Qamdo, prefecture, bordering Sichuan province, two sources said.
"Police are investigating," one of the sources told Reuters. "No arrests have been made," added the source, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals. No other details were available.
Calls to the Qamdo government and police could not be connected. The Tibetan propaganda office was also unavailable for comment.
The prefecture's Communist Party chief told officials to be vigilant "against splittism," according to a notice seen on the local government's website (www.changdu.gov.cn) on Tuesday.
In Kangding, a heavily Tibetan town in neighboring Sichuan province, a Reuters reporter saw hundreds of anti-riot police taking part in drills in barracks on the outskirts. They marched in formations intended to control crowds, wore protective padding and wielded batons and long sticks. Some held guns.
The reporter was told by an official from the local foreign affairs office he should not venture deeper into the heavily Tibetan region due to "landslides and cold weather."
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu played down tensions.
"Now Tibet is stable and the social order is calm. Tibetans in areas that celebrate the New Year at this time are going ahead with celebrations," he told a regular news conference.
"The Dalai clique's attempt to spread rumors to destroy Tibet's stability will fail."
But in even remote communities, communications have been cut and banners warn residents to banish all thoughts of separatism.
"You should understand that the atmosphere this year has been affected ... because a lot of Tibetans are in jail and also because of these incidents," said Sunom Cherong, a 31-year-old monk pausing to pray at a monastery in Tagong, a village nestled in a treeless valley a bone-jarring bus-ride from Kangding.
China brands the Dalai Lama a separatist and accuses him of being behind anti-China protests that followed last year's violence and disrupted the international Olympic torch relay. The Dalai Lama denies the charges.
In Yajiang, a village perched on the vertigo-inducing road from Kangding to Tibet, banners warn residents: "Say no to separatism, maintain stability and promote development."
The village Internet cafe was empty and residents complained of cut mobile phone services.
Further along the road to Tibet in Lithang, Chinese forces detained up to 24 Tibetans for taking to the streets shouting support for the Dalai Lama, an overseas rights group said earlier this month. Local police denied any knowledge.
The protests were sparked by the arrest of a Tibetan who called for a boycott of New Year celebrations, the group said.
In Tagong, Sunom Cherong said monks would mark the holiday as usual amid the security clampdown -- in quiet contemplation.
"There will be prayers ... In a historical sense, we have never stopped doing prayers. So I think these problems will not affect us," he said.
Additional reporting by David Gray, Benjamin Lim, Chris Buckley and Lucy Hornby; Writing by Ian Ransom; Editing by Nick Macfie and Valerie Lee