Sprawling Tibetan Buddhist institute engulfed in flames

BEIJING (AFP) - A remote Tibetan Buddhist institute thought to be among the largest in the world has been seriously damaged in a huge fire, reports said on Friday, while the cause of the inferno remains a mystery.

The fire at the Serthar, or Larung Gar, Institute in Sichuan province in southwest China started on Thursday evening, according to a China News Network report.

The blaze destroyed at least 10 structures but no casualties had been reported, the report said.

More than 450 rescuers, police and firefighters carried out relief efforts at the scene and an investigation was underway, it added.

Pictures posted on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, showed throngs of onlookers standing in a street, gazing upwards as bright yellow flames consumed a huge portion of the sprawling institute and smoke wafted into the night sky.

In one of the images, rescue workers appeared to be moving debris and aiding several shaven-headed monks in long scarlet robes.

Serthar, known as Seda in Chinese, is in a Tibetan area more than 4,000m above sea level and hundreds of kilometres from the nearest city.

The institute was founded in 1980 in an uninhabited valley and has since grown to become one of the world's most important centres of Tibetan Buddhism, with an estimated population of 10,000 monks, nuns and students living in small wooden homes on the hillsides surrounding the complex.

Its founder, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, who died in 2004, was known for keeping a strict focus on Buddhism rather than politics at the institute.

He maintained a close relationship with both Chinese authorities and the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader and Nobel peace laureate who Beijing condemns as a separatist.

But the Buddhist academy's survival was threatened in 2001 when armed police forced hundreds of nuns and monks to leave the site, destroying more than 1,000 homes to prevent them returning.

Police demanded that nuns sign documents denouncing the Dalai Lama and pledging not to return, according to overseas campaign groups, and Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok was detained for a year after the incident.

In early 2012, Serthar was rocked by violence when police fired tear gas and began shooting into a crowd of hundreds of peaceful Tibetan protesters, exile groups said.

China's official Xinhua news agency said that the incident, in which one person was killed, was triggered when "rioters" attacked police with knives, bottles of petrol and guns.

Since 2009, more than 120 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest at what they say is Beijing's religious and cultural repression.

China accuses the Dalai Lama of seeking to split Tibet from the rest of China and fomenting unrest in the region, but overseas rights groups say incidents are driven by growing unhappiness among Tibetans at Beijing's rule.