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A string of mountain towns along the edge of the Tibetan Plateau that set out to mourn, rather than celebrate, the Chinese lunar new year are now under lockdown following days of clashes between Tibetan protesters and Chinese police that left several people dead.

Tens of thousands of residents of the towns of Serthar and Luhuo – and more in the surrounding Tibetan-populated western corner of Sichuan province – have been effectively cut off from the outside world after the violence. Telephone and Internet services to the region have apparently been severed, and checkpoints have been set up along the roads to control who gets in and out.

The clampdown comes in the wake of clashes Monday and Tuesday that Tibetan exile groups say left at least six people dead and dozens more wounded after Chinese police opened fire on separate protests in Serthar and Luhuo. The violence followed calls for Tibetans to mourn the lunar new year – China's biggest holiday – after seeing 16 Buddhist monks and nuns light themselves on fire over the past 12 months in protest against Chinese policies.

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"We're now seeing the protest is shifting from individual monks and nuns to the lay community," said Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies program at Columbia University in New York. "It does seem to be that if the government doesn't respond to these grievances, there will be more protests."

Prof. Barnett said tensions have been rising in the Tibetan areas of Sichuan since the 1990s, when Beijing introduced a policy of forcing monks and nuns to personally denounce the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader (and Nobel Peace Prize laureate) whom Beijing calls a separatist and supporter of terrorism. "Roughly speaking, [the protests]are the result of directly imposing restrictions on the heart of their religious practice," he said.

China's official Xinhua newswire acknowledged this week's clashes, reporting that two Tibetans were killed in "premeditated and organized" incidents that saw rioters armed with knives and stones attack Chinese-owned stores and a police station. Xinhua said lethal force was used "after efforts involving persuasion and non-lethal weapon defence failed to disperse the mob." Five policemen were said to be among the wounded.

It is nearly impossible to say which version is more accurate, since the entire area is off-limits to foreign media. Nonetheless, the violence appears to be the worst to strike the region since deadly riots erupted across the Tibetan Plateau in early 2008.

"Because of gruesome acts such as these [shootings by police]and the systematic repression of Tibetans, the resentment and anger amongst Tibetans against the Chinese government has only grown since the massive uprising of 2008," Lobsang Sangay, the head of Tibet's government-in-exile, said in a statement issued Thursday. The Tibetan leadership has been headquartered in Dharamsala in northern India since 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled there after Chinese troops crushed a Tibetan rebellion.

Tibetan areas inside China are likely to remain tense for the foreseeable future. Posters have reportedly appeared promising further self-immolations to mark the Tibetan New Year on Feb. 22. The March 14 anniversary of the 2008 unrest also looms.

The violence comes less than two weeks before Prime Minister Stephen Harper is due to arrive in China on a five-day trip aimed primarily at promoting trade.

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