BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said on Tuesday self-immolations in Tibetan parts of China were extreme acts that did not have popular support, in the highest level comments on the unrest since an increase in tension in January.
At least 15 Tibetans are believed to have died from their injuries since March in protests against Chinese rule, mostly in heavily Tibetan parts of Sichuan and Gansu provinces.
"Any attempts to incite a small number of monks to take extreme acts to undermine stability in Tibet is not in the interests of development in Tibet or the interests of Tibetans. Such attempts have no popular support," Wen said.
"We respect and protect Tibet's ecological environment and traditional culture, respect and protect religious freedom in Tibet," Wen said, answering a rare question about the issue after a summit with European leaders.
Wen said Tibet was an "inseparable part" of China which the government has made great efforts at developing.
"Our Tibetan countrymen are an important part of China's family of ethnic groups. They are our brothers," he told reporters.
For China, the self-immolations are a small but potentially destabilising challenge to its regional policies, and the government has branded the immolators as terrorists.
The government has repeatedly blamed exiled Tibetans for stoking the protests, including spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising.
The Dalai Lama has blamed the self-immolations on "cultural genocide" by the Chinese but he has not directly called for them to stop.
Activists say China violently stamps out Tibetan religious freedom and culture in Tibet, a vast, remote and largely mountainous region of western China in the Himalayas that has been under Chinese control since 1950.
Advocacy groups fear the burnings will continue or accelerate before the traditional Tibetan new year, which begins on February 22 amid an increased Chinese security presence in the region.
Security forces have clamped down in Tibet and other Tibetan areas of China in recent weeks, setting up road blocks and cutting off some communications, making it impossible for journalists and others to independently verify conflicting accounts. Tibetan advocacy groups say as many as seven Tibetans were shot dead and dozens wounded during protests in January. China's official Xinhua news agency reported that police fired in self-defence on "mobs" that stormed police stations.
Reporting by Lucy Hornby and Michael Martina; Editing by Robert Birsel