Sacred Tibetan monastery catches fire, no reports of casualties

Buddhists asking for forgivenness at Jokhang Temple in Tibet. ST FILE PHOTO

BEIJING (AFP) - A fire broke out Saturday (Feb 17) at one of the most sacred sites for Tibetan Buddhism, Lhasa's revered Jokhang temple, state media said, but no casualties were reported and the extent of the damage remained unclear.

The official Xinhua news agency said the fire began at 6.40pm local time but was soon put out at the Unesco World Heritage site, which has more than 1,300 years of history and lies at the heart of old Lhasa.

"The fire was quickly extinguished, there were no casualties and order is normal in the area," said the state-run Tibet Daily, adding that Tibet's top Communist party official Wu Yingjie had rushed immediately to the scene.

Images posted on social media of the blaze showed the eaves roof of a section of the building lit with roaring yellow flames and emitting a haze of smoke.

But on Twitter, which is blocked in China, Tibetans abroad noted that photos and posts about the fire were quickly being censored.

Robert Barnett, a London-based Tibetologist, tweeted that sources in Lhasa "claim police have threatened anyone distributing pictures or unofficial news about the fire."

The blaze comes as Tibetans across the country are celebrating Losar, the traditional Tibetan New Year that began Friday, the same day as the Chinese lunar new year.

The temple had been closed to the public on Saturday, Xinhua cited a schedule put forth by local authorities as saying before the holiday began.

China has ruled Tibet since the 1950s, and has been accused of trying to eradicate its Buddhist-based culture through political and religious repression.

Beijing insists that Tibetans enjoy extensive freedoms and argues that it has brought economic growth to the region.

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