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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. This week, Tibetans protested against Chinese rule. They held some of the largest protests in four years. According to Tibetan right groups, Chinese security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing at least four people and wounding more than 30. The demonstrations were inspired, in part, by a disturbing new trend in Tibetan dissent: Tibetan people lighting themselves on fire. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: By most accounts, this week's demonstrations began with leaflets. They were distributed in the Tibetan region of China's far-western Sichuan province. At least one urged people to protest Chinese rule by not celebrating Chinese New Year, which began Monday. The leaflet also contained something certain to stir strong feelings. Kate Saunders, who works with the International Campaign for Tibet, explains.

KATE SAUNDERS: An unidentified Tibetan author was saying that he or she was preparing to set fire to themselves.

LANGFITT: Since last March, 16 Tibetans have doused themselves with fuel and set themselves aflame, to protest China's restrictive political and religious policies.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

LANGFITT: This video shows a Tibetan teenager lying on a street, his blackened body still smoking. Women scream, and one repeats the name of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. In part to mourn the loss of these people, hundreds staged public protests earlier this week. Kate Saunders describes what happened when Tibetans gathered in a public square in Seda county on Tuesday.

SAUNDERS: Troops attempted to lock down the area. Troops fired at the Tibetans. It was a scene of terrible panic and fear. At least one Tibetan was shot dead. Others were shot. And we heard from Tibetan sources that after this occurred, the square was covered in blood, and there were tear gas canisters left on the scene.

LANGFITT: China's government insists Tibetans started the violence. Xinhua, the government's official news agency, says a Tibetan mob attacked a police station with, quote, gasoline bottles, knives and stones. Xinhua says 14 police were injured.

Confirming the facts is extraordinarily difficult. Chinese security forces have blocked roads, and prevented reporters from entering the region for months. NPR made 30 calls to hotels, restaurants and other businesses in the area with no answer - suggesting the government is blocking outside calls as well.

Lobsang Sangay is the prime minister of Tibet's government in exile, in India. He says the self-immolations over the past year mark a distressing turn for the Tibetan freedom movement in China.

LOBSANG SANGAY: It's really sad, you know. It's really tragic that Tibetans are resorting to such extreme measures. Given the choice, anyone would like to live. No one wants to die.

ROBERT BARNETT: People are desperate. And that seems to be particularly true inside monasteries and some nunneries.

LANGFITT: Robert Barnett runs the modern Tibetan studies program at Columbia University. He says since 2000, China has imposed particularly harsh conditions on some Tibetan areas in Sichuan province.

BARNETT: Attacks on the Dalai Lama personally, demanding that monks denounce the Dalai Lama. So they've lost the support and patience of people in those areas.

LANGFITT: China's government blames the unrest and self-immolations on the Dalai Lama. The Communist Party claims he encourages the suicides to foment rebellion – something the Dalia Lama has denied. Earlier this week, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland criticized China's latest crackdown.

VICTORIA NULAND: We have repeatedly urged the Chinese government to address its counterproductive policies in the Tibetan areas, which have created tensions and threatened the unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity of the Tibetan people.

LANGFITT: China shows no sign of changing its approach. Tibetan activists say the areas where the protests occurred remain under lockdown. They also say they expect more demonstrations in the coming days.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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