First Tibetan self-immolates in China this year: Reports

BEIJING (AFP) - A Tibetan man has died after setting himself on fire in protest at China's rule of the Himalayan region, a rights group and overseas media said, the first self-immolation this year.

The man burned himself to death at about 1pm (0500 GMT) on Saturday, London-based Free Tibet and US-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) said, in what is thought to be the first self-immolation since Dec 9.

The immolation happened in Xiahe, a county in western China's Gansu province known as Sangchu in Tibetan.

The body of the man, who was identified with the single name Tsebe or Tseba, was carried back to his home village about 4 kilometres away following a protest, Free Tibet said.

The rights group said he was aged in his early twenties, while RFA said its sources claimed he was 19.

The man called out for the Dalai Lama to be allowed to return to Tibet, RFA said.

RFA claims 96 ethnic Tibetans, many of them monks and nuns, have set themselves on fire in China since February 2009 to protest against Beijing's rule in Tibet.

The number of burnings peaked last November in the run-up to the Chinese Communist Party's set-piece congress, at which Xi Jinping was named the party's new general secretary in a once-in-a-decade power handover.

Before Saturday's immolation, the most recent protests were on Dec 9, when Kunchok Pelgye, 24, set himself alight in southwestern China's Sichuan province, while Pema Dorjee, 23, self-immolated in neighbouring Gansu province, rights groups said.

Free Tibet director Stephanie Brigden said the latest immolation demonstrates "Tibetan rejection of the Chinese occupation is as strong as ever.

"The new Chinese leadership and the international community cannot allow demands for freedom to continue to go unheeded. 2013 must be the year where positive change comes to Tibet," she added.

Many Tibetans in China accuse the government of enacting religious repression and eroding their culture, as the country's majority Han ethnic group increasingly moves into historically Tibetan areas.

China rejects this, saying Tibetans enjoy religious freedom. Beijing points to huge ongoing investment it says has brought modernisation and a better standard of living to Tibet.

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising and has since based himself in the Indian hill town of Dharamshala.

Calls to police and local government officials in Xiahe went unanswered on Sunday.