The Dalai Lama has not condemned or condoned self-immolations, but said desperate conditions caused them [AFP]

Two Buddhist Tibetans in southwest China have set themselves on fire in protest against perceived religious repression by the Chinese government, rights groups say.

The incidents on Friday, if confirmed, bring the number of Tibetan self-immolations in the country to 14 since March.

Witnesses saw a man set himself ablaze near the Kirti monastery in Aba city in Sichuan province, according to Free Tibet, a UK-based activist group.

The group cited sources saying the protester called for the return of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader who fled to India in 1959, before Chinese security forces put out the flames. The condition of the man, not believed to be a Buddhist monk, was not known.

Soon afterwards, the second self-immolation occurred nearby, Free Tibet said, qoting sources as saying the person died at the scene.

The other Tibetans who have set themselves on fire in the past 10 months, most of whom were Buddhist monks and nuns, were said to have called for freedom for Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama.

At least six of the incidents have been fatal.

Most people in Aba are ethnic Tibetan herders and farmers, and many see themselves as members of a wider Tibetan region encompassing what China calls the Tibetan Autonomous Region, as well as vast highlands of the country's west.

'Cultural genocide'

China has ruled Tibet since communist troops occupied the region in 1950 and says Tibetans are free to practise their Buddhist faith.

China's foreign ministry has branded the self-immolators "terrorists" and has said the Dalai Lama, whom it condemns as a supporter of violent separatism, should take the blame for the "immoral" burnings.

The Dalai Lama has not condemned or condoned the burning but said the desperate conditions Tibetans face under Beijing's rigid controls in what amounted to "cultural genocide" have led to the spate of self-immolations.

He denies advocating violence and separatism and insists he wants only real autonomy for his homeland.

In March 2008, deadly riots against the Chinese presence spread across the Tibet Autonomous Region and Tibetan regions before the Beijing Olympics, leading to sometimes deadly confrontations with troops and police.

Source: Agencies