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First Tibetan this year self-immolates: reports

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

The man burned himself to death at about 1 p.m. (0500 GMT) on Saturday, said London-based pressure group Free Tibet and U.S.-based Radio Free Asia (RFA), in what is thought to be the first such act since Dec. 9.

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

The body of the man, who was identified by the single name Tsebe or Tseba, was carried back to his home village about four kilometers (2.5 miles) away following a protest, Free Tibet said.

The rights group said he was in his early 20s, while RFA cited its sources as saying he was 19.

The man called out for the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to be allowed to return to the region, RFA said.

RFA says 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 in November in the run-up to the Chinese Communist Party's five-yearly 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 protest was on Dec. 9 when a 16-year-old girl died after setting herself alight in China's northwestern province of Qinghai, state media said.

According to a partial list drawn up by Free Tibet the teenager is among the youngest girls to have set themselves on fire.

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 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 modernization 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.

China accuses him of inciting the spate of burnings and of seeking an independent Tibet. He has repeatedly said he is seeking greater autonomy for the region and not independence.

Beijing has ordered judicial departments to file murder charges against anyone caught aiding or abetting the fiery protests.

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

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