BEIJING (Reuters) - As many as five Tibetans set themselves ablaze in China in the past week to protest Chinese rule over Tibet, a U.S. broadcaster said, a surge highlighted by a rights group as a sustained campaign against Beijing's grip on religious freedom.
Two self-immolations on Monday in the Aba prefecture, a mountainous and mainly ethnic Tibetan part of Sichuan province, were followed by at least one clash between police and ethnic Tibetans that left one protester dead, Radio Free Asia said.
Lungtok, a monk from the restive Kirti monastery in Aba, and Tashi, believed to be a layman, set themselves ablaze on Monday "to highlight their opposition to Chinese rule in Tibetan-populated areas", Radio Free Asia reported, saying three other Tibetans have died in self-immolations in the past week in China.
Many Tibetans have called for Beijing to allow the return of the Dalai Lama, their self-exiled Buddhist leader. China has branded the self-immolators "terrorists" and criminals and has blamed the Dalai Lama, for inciting them.
Calls to the Aba prefecture office were not answered.
Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the frequency of the Tibetan self-immolations is "a reflection of the ever-deepening frustration and despair" that many Tibetans feel about hopes for reform and protection for their culture, religion and language.
"We don't see any inkling of such changes in the short to medium term, instead we see a hardening of position by the Chinese government," he said. "This is an unfortunate trend that will continue till we head into the leadership transition."
Chinese leaders typically clamp down on possible sources of unrest before a once in a decade congress, likely in October, to announce a new leadership team.
Including the latest incidents, at least 47 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since March 2011 to protest Chinese rule over Tibet, according to rights groups.
In the past week, the International Campaign for Tibet, based in Washington, reported two self-immolations, while the United Kingdom-based Free Tibet said there were three incidents in the same time period.
China has ruled Tibet since 1950, when Communist troops marched in and announced its "peaceful liberation". Beijing insists Chinese rule has brought development and prosperity and denies trampling on Tibetan rights.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Ed Lane)