Jonathan Watts in Beijing
Buddhist monks walk past police cars near the Labrang monastery in the Tibetan town of Xiahe. (Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
Tibetan monks have gone on hunger strike to demand the release of protesters detained during the region's biggest demonstrations in almost 20 years, support groups said today.
The sit-down protest in Sera monastery, just outside Lhasa, comes amid reports that the protests against Chinese rule earlier this week have spread to a wider area than previously believed.
"We have heard from more than one source that monks in Sera are on hunger strike, demanding the release of imprisoned monks," said Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet. "We don't know the number, but it seems there are many of them."
About a dozen monks were reportedly detained on Monday, when several hundred monks from Sera, Drepung and Ganden monasteries took to the streets to mark the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Beijing.
During the boldest action since 1989, some waved the banned Tibetan flag and shouted slogans calling for more freedom.
It emerged today that a similar protest took place at Lutsang monastery in Qinghai, known in Tibetan as Amdo, where hundreds of monks reportedly chanted slogans calling for their exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, to return.
According to the Free Tibet campaign, 100 monks from Myera monastery in Gansu also staged a demonstration.
Since then, there have been further demonstrations. In Lhasa, thousands of police are said to have used teargas to break up rallies. Gunfire was heard, but there were no reports of casualties.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the protesters in Lhasa were "seeking to spark social turmoil".
"This was carefully planned by the Dalai clique in a bid to separate Tibet and sabotage Tibetan people's normal life of stability and harmony," he told a news conference.
The Guardian was unable to confirm the reports from these regions, where the Tibetan communities are tightly controlled by the Chinese government.
A source in Lhasa said he had seen more than 20 military vehicles on the street and heard that roads to the monasteries were blocked off.
Exiled Tibetans and their supporters say thousands of police have surrounded the main monasteries, but so far the confrontation has not been violent.
"It seems as though police and military are not using excessive force at present. This would be unprecedented as a government response," said Saunders. "They appear to have been ordered to handle this carefully ahead of the Olympics."
With more demonstrations expected in the months ahead, China has declared a climbing ban on the north face of Mount Everest, ahead of the arrival of the Olympic Torch there this summer.
Last year, activists went to Everest's base camp and unfurled a banner saying "Free Tibet".
In India, exiled Tibetans who had vowed to march back to their homeland in a protest against the Olympics and the lack of freedom in the Himalayan region were stopped today when Indian police arrested over 100 of the marchers.
The upsurge in activism comes amid growing frustration with the lack of progress in talks between representatives of the Dalai Lama and Beijing.