BEIJING — Hundreds of Tibetans demonstrated in a western China town Friday, calling for freedom from Chinese rule in the latest act of protest apparently timed to send a signal to the Communist Party elite as it gathers in Beijing to induct a new leadership.
The protesters, mostly high school students, marched through the town of Rongwo, shouting for independence and for the return from exile of their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, according to residents, people visiting the town and Tibetan exiles.
"It was chaos this morning," said a Tibetan painter who lives nearby and was reached by phone.
The march comes after five Tibetans set themselves on fire this week, two of them in the area near Rongwo, in burning protests that have triggered gatherings of hundreds of people over the past few days, rights groups report.
Tibet support groups overseas have said the uptick in protests in recent days is meant to highlight Tibetan unhappiness with Chinese rule as the country's current leaders begin to hand over power to younger successors at a party congress in Beijing.
"Chinese leaders selected during the 18th Party Congress must recognize that China's hard-line policies in Tibet have utterly failed and only through dialogue can a peaceful and lasting solution be found," said Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the Tibetan self-declared government-in-exile in Dharmsala, India, in a statement.
"We firmly believe that an end to repression will effectively end the cycle (of) self-immolation," he said.
This week's immolations were the latest in more than 60 such acts since March 2011 that Tibetans said shows their growing outrage and desperation at living under tighter religious and social controls imposed by China.
Friday's protest was the largest demonstration after days of growing tensions in the town, which sits at the edge of the Tibetan plateau and is dominated by the 600-year-old Rongwo Monastery.
A 22-year-old Tibetan farmer said protesters started gathering at about 4 a.m. near a local high school not far from the monastery and swelled into the thousands. He said the protests were led by hundreds of teenage students, who were joined by local farmers.
The painter and farmer both spoke by telephone on condition of anonymity out of fear of government reprisals.
Government offices in Rongwo, known as Longwu in Chinese, or the county overseeing it in Qinghai province either declined comment or did not answer telephone calls. Police kept watch over the protest but did not immediately make any arrests, said an auto mechanic who would give only his surname, Ma.
In Beijing, Tibetan Communist Party officials attending the party congress told reporters they believed much of the blame for the spate of self-immolations fell on the Dalai Lama and his associates, whom they said were instigating the protests.
"Everyone can see that these incidents are being manipulated by external Tibetan forces. They are calling the self-immolations heroic acts and making the self-immolators out to be heroes," said Lobsang Gyaincain, the Chinese-appointed vice-governor of Tibet.
"The external Tibetan forces and the Dalai clique are sacrificing other people's lives to attain their secret political motives," Gyaincain said in response to a reporter's question at a meeting of the region's delegates to the party congress.
The Dalai Lama and representatives of the self-declared Tibetan government-in-exile in India say they oppose all violence.
Associated Press reporter Isolda Morillo contributed to this report.