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China detains 70 in bid to crack down on Tibet self-immolation protests

Ashwini Bhatia / AP

Exiled Tibetan Buddhist monks walk past a banner of photos of Tibetan protesters as they participate in a candlelit vigil organized by the Tibetan parliament in exile in Dharmsala, India, on Thursday.

Chinese authorities detained 70 people in ethnically Tibetan areas Thursday in a bid to crack down on the gruesome spectacle of people setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule, state media said.

The operation, the largest of its kind yet reported by Beijing, is part of an intensifying effort to quell the fiery protests. It comes on the heels of a documentary released in China that blames Westerners, particularly Voice of America, for encouraging people to set themselves on fire and then treating those who do as heroes.

Nearly 100 people have set themselves alight since 2009 to protest Chinese rule, and most of them have died from their injuries.

Twelve of the 70 people detained Thursday were officially arrested in connection with self-immolation cases in what China calls the Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province deputy police chief Lyu Bengqian said, according to state media.

Lyu is head of a special police team investigating self-immolation cases. He said efforts would be stepped up to investigate the protests and to "seriously punish" anyone seen as inciting them.

China blames the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile, as well as the West for the increase in self-immolations.

The U.S. State Department has been critical of the recent arrests.

In her Feb. 1 news briefing, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland criticized China's Tibet policies, in particular the heavy sentencing in January of a Tibetan monk and his nephew, who were charged with inciting eight people to set themselves on fire.

"We continue both publicly and privately to urge the Chinese government at all levels to address policies in Tibet -- in Tibetan areas -- that have created tensions and that threaten the distinct religious, cultural and linguistic identity of the Tibetan people."

On Wednesday, Voice of America shot back at China's assertion that it had encouraged Tibetans to set themselves on fire.

"That is totally false," Voice of America Director David Ensor said in a news release. "We do report these tragic stories; we do not encourage these self-immolations, that is wrong."

CCTV, the Chinese state broadcaster, produced and aired a documentary that pointed fingers at Voice of America, which is the U.S. government's official broadcaster overseas.

The program showed a Tibetan man in a hospital bed who allegedly attempted to self-immolate.

Apparently prompted to explain why he had attempted to light himself on fire, the man said, "I did it after watching VOA, I saw the photographs of self-immolators being commemorated. They were treated like heroes."

The documentary also sensationally accuses VOA of employing secret codes to send messages to people inside Tibet.

"That is one of the more amazing parts of the CCTV report," Ensor said. "That suggestion is totally absurd."

VOA is asking that both CCTV and the China Daily retract their reports.

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