BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Foreign Ministry said Thursday the government of a restive, heavily Tibetan part of the country would take tough measures to ensure stability after a spate of self-immolations in protest at Chinese controls.

At least nine people have set fire to themselves in Tibetan parts of China in recent months, mostly in Aba in the southwestern province of Sichuan, to protest Chinese rule and what they say are restrictions on their culture and faith.

This week, Tibet's prime minister-in-exile blamed China's hard-line position for forcing Tibetans to take such desperate steps.

But Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu repeated that the government would continue to carry out a policy of freedom of religion.

"The local government will also take vigorous measures to ensure the safety of people and their property and normal social order," she told a regular news briefing.

There was no such thing as a "Tibet problem" as pushed by exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, Jiang added.

"China firmly opposes ethnic separatism, will resolutely protect national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and firmly opposes any country using the excuse of the so-called Tibet problem to interfere in China's internal affairs."

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Dalai Lama denies espousing violence, insisting he wants only real autonomy for his homeland, from which he fled in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. He is based in northern India.

Rights groups say the self-immolation protests could lead to a broad crackdown in Aba, which erupted in violence in March 2008 when Buddhist monks and other Tibetans loyal to the Dalai Lama confronted police and troops.

China has ruled what it now calls the Tibet Autonomous Region with an iron fist since Communist troops marched in 1950.

But it rejects the criticism of rights groups and exiled Tibetans, saying its rule has ended serfdom and brought much needed development to a poor and backward region.

(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Sabrina Mao; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)