BEIJING (Reuters) - A Tibetan woman set herself on fire in southwestern China on Sunday to protest against Chinese rule, a Tibetan rights group said, the latest in a series of self-immolations that signal growing unrest in the Tibetan areas of China.
The incident came a day before China's annual parliamentary session - an occasion often used by authorities to clamp down on potential sources of unrest and project political unity.
Campaign group Free Tibet said the woman, identified as Rinchen, a 32-year-old mother of four, died after setting herself ablaze on Sunday morning near a monastery in Sichuan province.
The Kirti monastery in Aba county, known as Ngaba in Tibetan, has been at the forefront of pro-Tibetan protests in recent months including several self-immolations.
Local officials were unable to confirm or deny the incident.
Rinchen is the 23rd Tibetan to self-immolate in the past year. At least 16 are believed to have died from their injuries, according to rights groups. Most were Buddhist monks.
Zorgyi, a Tibetan researcher living in exile in India's Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, said
Rinchen was a widowed housewife, whose eldest child was 13 years old and the youngest an infant.
"According to the eyewitness, she shouted some slogans during her self-immolation: 'Return the Holiness to Tibet' and 'We need freedom in Tibet'," Zorgyi said.
"She was dead on the spot, according to the eyewitness. The local people and the monks took the body to the monastery."
Self-immolations are a small but potentially destabilizing challenge to China's regional policies, and the government has branded those who set themselves alight as terrorists.
Activists say China violently stamps out religious freedom and culture in Tibet, the mountainous region of western China which has been under Chinese control since 1950.
China rejects criticism that it is eroding Tibetan culture and faith, saying its rule has ended serfdom and brought development to a backward region.
China's top official in Tibet has urged authorities to tighten their grip on the Internet and mobile phones, state media reported last Thursday, reflecting the government's fears about unrest ahead of its annual parliamentary session.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)