Tibetan monks in a Chinese region rocked by a deadly protest said Tuesday they were too afraid to leave their monastery where injured people had taken refuge, as hundreds of armed forces patrolled outside.
The increased security comes after police opened fire on Tibetan protesters and as authorities sealed off another Tibetan-inhabited area also rocked by a demonstration, locals and the London-based Free Tibet campaign group said.
Both protests took place in the southwestern province of Sichuan — which has large populations of ethnic Tibetans, many of whom complain of a lack of religious freedom — and where unrest has been on the rise over the past year.
In one of the protests Monday, rights groups and locals said at least one person died and more than 30 others were injured when police opened fire on unarmed Tibetans protesting in Sichuan's Luhuo county.
But China's foreign ministry said Tuesday their account of the incident was hyped, and that dozens of protesters — some armed with knives — stormed stores and a police station in Luhuo, threw stones and destroyed vehicles.
"One member of the mob was killed and four others injured in the clash," spokesman Hong Lei was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency, adding five police officers were also injured.
"At present, Luhuo county has been returned to order and local authorities have been conducting an investigation into the incident," he said.
A monk reached by phone Tuesday at the Dragko Monastery in Luhuo — around 1km from the scene of the protest — said he estimated around 1,000 to 2,000 armed police were now standing guard.
"We are treating 32 injured people inside the monastery, and two of them are critical. One of them has a bullet in the head," the monk, who would not be named, told AFP.
Another monk reached by phone at a different time said they were too afraid to take the wounded to an outside hospital due to the strong security presence, adding those protesting on Monday had now gone home.
"More police are coming, we just want peace," he said.
The government and police in Luhuo refused to comment when contacted by AFP.
According to monks reached by phone on Monday evening, the shooting happened after thousands of people marched to the local police station to call for religious freedom and to protest against local corruption.
Xinhua, however, said people gathered outside a bus station in Luhuo after a man put up posters claiming a monk would set himself on fire there, and the fighting ensued.
A man at a hotel in Luhuo reached by phone said he heard three people had died in the unrest — a toll that the US-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) also reached.
The India-based Tibetan government-in-exile, meanwhile, said six people may have died in the unrest.
Stephanie Brigden, head of Free Tibet, said the unrest was "the largest reported shooting of Tibetans since 2008 and demonstrates the deepening crisis in Tibet."
She was referring to riots that erupted in Lhasa — capital of the Tibet autonomous region that neighbors Sichuan — in March 2008, prompting a wave of protests in nearby Tibetan-inhabited areas over the following months.
But Hong denounced Free Tibet and other organizations, saying they were "overseas secessionist groups" trying to distort the truth and discredit the Chinese government, Xinhua said.
Separately, on the same day, police fired tear gas into a crowd of Tibetans protesting against perceived oppression just under 300 kilometers away in Aba county, Free Tibet said.
"Additional security forces have been deployed in the area and roads connecting Ngaba (Aba in Chinese) to the surrounding counties have been closed by the authorities," the group said.
Calls to the Aba government and police went unanswered.
The protests add to already high tensions in China's Tibetan-inhabited regions, where 16 people have set fire to themselves in less than a year — including four this month alone.
Many Tibetans in China complain of a lack of religious freedom and say their culture is being eroded by an influx of majority Han Chinese in the areas they live in.
But Beijing denies it uses repressive methods against Tibetans, insisting they enjoy freedom of religious belief and that huge ongoing investment into Tibetan-inhabited areas has greatly raised their standard of living.