Tibetan separatists who attacked police stations with rocks and molotov cocktails sparked last week's deadly violence in Sichuan, the Chinese government said Wednesday, countering claims by rights groups that police fired on unarmed protesters.
The government-run China Daily newspaper quoted extensively from a Sichuan government statement that said two Tibetan rioters were killed and 24 police and firefighters were injured in two clashes. The account differs from those of Tibetan support groups outside the country who say police fired on demonstrators in three separate areas, killing at least six Tibetans.
Independent confirmation of the clashes is difficult due to a heavy security presence and lack of access to outsiders. Repeated calls to Luhuo and Seda, two of the affected counties, would not go through Wednesday and phone companies said there were problems with area land lines and mobile networks.
Security in the area has been stepped up since the clashes. The state-run Global Times newspaper said Wednesday that armed police were checking vehicles at checkpoints along roads leading to the remote counties.
According to the China Daily report, the Sichuan government said the first violence broke out Jan. 23 in Luhuo when a group of separatists armed with rocks, batons and blades marched along a street shouting 'Tibetan independence' before trying to storm a police station.
It said the rioters attacked police cars, broke the windows of the police station and tried to steal guns from armed police officers.
The paper quoted the government as saying "the officers were forced to take actions to defend themselves according to the law."
"No country governed by law would tolerate such violence directed against police and aimed at separating the country," it said.
By the government's account, 10 officers and firefighters were injured and one rioter was killed in the first incident.
The next day in Sichuan's Seda county, it said, another group attacked a police station with molotov cocktails. It said one rioter was killed "after the police fought back." The report didn't say if police opened fire.
"Evidence shows that the violent attacks ... were long plotted by separatist forces," the paper quoted the government as saying.
The article also said separatists have been trying to stir up unrest in the area and have "asked and encouraged monks to commit suicide by self-immolation."
The counties have been tense for some time, and at least 16 Buddhist monks, nuns and other Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest in the past year. Most have chanted for Tibetan freedom and the return of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who fled to India amid an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.
Many Tibetans resent Beijing's heavy-handed rule and the large-scale migration of China's ethnic Han majority into Tibetan areas. While China says Tibet has been under its rule for centuries, many Tibetans say the region was functionally independent for most of that time.
This is the region's most violent period since 2008, when deadly rioting in Tibet's capital, Lhasa, spread to Tibetan areas in adjoining provinces. China responded by flooding the area with troops and closing Tibetan regions entirely to foreigners for about a year. Special permission is still required for non-Chinese visitors to Tibet, and the Himalayan region remains closed off entirely for the weeks surrounding the March 14 anniversary of the riots that left 22 people dead.