BEIJING (Reuters) - Police in a restive Tibetan part of southwestern China opened fire on a group of monks and others who had gathered to mark the birthday of exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, seriously injuring at least two, a rights group said.
The incident, in Ganzi in Sichuan province, happened on Saturday at the gathering on a sacred mountain to make offerings and burn incense to celebrate the Dalai Lama's 78th birthday, the U.S.-based International Campaign for Tibet said.
Beijing considers the Dalai Lama, who fled China in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule, a violent separatist. The Dalai Lama, who is based in India, says he is merely seeking greater autonomy for his Himalayan homeland.
"Large numbers of armed police and soldiers were deployed, with one source reporting at least seven army trucks and police vehicles at the scene," the group said in an e-mail on Tuesday.
"The security forces attempted to prevent Tibetans from making their offerings and gatherings, but according to two Tibetan sources in exile, some Tibetans present argued that burning incense was not a crime," it added in the statement.
"Without warning, according to several Tibetan sources, police opened fire on the unarmed crowd and used tear-gas."
Two monks were shot in the head and several others seriously injured, the group added.
While Chinese security forces often use heavy-handed tactics to stop protests in Tibetan regions, they rarely use guns.
Officials reached by telephone in Ganzi said they had no knowledge of the incident.
China's Foreign Ministry said it was also unaware of the reports, but said the Dalai Lama was using the opportunity of his birthday to promote his separatist agenda.
"We hope that people can see clearly the true nature of this," ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing.
At least 119 Tibetans have set themselves alight in protest against Chinese rule since 2009, mostly in heavily Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces rather than in what China terms the Tibet Autonomous Region. Most have died.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)