BEIJING (Reuters) - The Chinese government has detained several hundred Tibetans who returned from India after attending teaching sessions overseen by the Dalai Lama, and is forcing them to undergo political re-education, a human rights group said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it believed it was the first time since the late 1970s that authorities had detained Tibetan laypeople in such large numbers, and comes as China frets about unrest in Tibetan parts of the country.
China allowed about 7,000 Tibetans to attend the sessions with exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in the eastern Indian state of Bihar between December 31 and January 10, in what the rights group said seemed to be a sign of a relaxation of policy toward Tibetans.
"However, that changed against a backdrop of unrest in the eastern Tibetan areas and apparent fears it might spread to Lhasa," it said in an emailed statement received on Friday, referring to Tibet's capital.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said he was not aware of the detentions, but blamed foreign groups for the recent tensions in the region. "Some groups outside of China's borders wait for their chance to incite separatist activities," Liu said at a daily news briefing.
"These action all have obvious political goals -- to destroy social stability, pressure the Chinese government and provoke separatism to achieve Tibetan independence schemes," he said.
But activists say China violently stamps out religious freedom and culture in Tibet, a vast, remote and largely mountainous region of western China in the Himalayas that has been under Chinese control since 1950.
At least 15 Tibetans are believed to have died after setting themselves on fire since March in protests against Chinese rule, mostly in heavily Tibetan parts of China's Sichuan and Gansu provinces rather than in Tibet itself.
The U.S.-based broadcaster Radio Free Asia reported that another Tibetan monk, Damchoe Sangpo, aged about 40, had burned himself to death on Friday in China's western Qinghai province.
The monk set himself on fire after protesting Chinese security strictures at Bongtak monastery in the Haixi district, RFA said in a report that could not be immediately verified.
Sangpo's death was the 22nd confirmed self-immolation by Tibetans protesting Chinese rule in Tibetan regions since February 2009, RFA said.
Tibetan advocacy groups say as many as seven Tibetans were shot dead and dozens wounded during protests in Sichuan in January. Chinese state media reported that police fired in self-defense on "mobs" that stormed police stations.
Human Rights Watch said the recent batch of Tibetan detainees had travelled in and out of China on valid Chinese passports.
"There is no known regulation banning Tibetans from attending the teachings, and the returnees undergoing re-education have not been accused of any crime, such as carrying illicit documents or crossing the Chinese border without permission," it said.
"There are no reports so far that any of the estimated 700 ethnic Chinese from China who attended the Dalai Lama's teachings in Bihar have been detained on their return to China, suggesting that the detainees are being selected because of their ethnicity," the group added.
Rights groups say Tibetan parts of China have been put under even tighter security than normal ahead of the Tibetan new year, which falls on February 22.
The Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Michael Martina, Sanjeev Miglani and Paul Eckert in Washington; editing by Todd Eastham