Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said on Friday “greater efforts” would be made by the Chinese government to protect Tibetans' cultural traditions and religious freedom, amid ongoing unrest in north-western China that has seen at least 16 self-immolation protests in recent months.

Mr. Wen's comments struck a markedly different tone from strong warnings issued by Communist Party officials in Tibet only a day earlier, describing the situation in the region as “grave” and calling for “a war against secessionist sabotage”. Chen Quango, the Communist Party chief in Tibet, had said in a speech on Thursday that an on-going “fight against the Dalai Lama clique” was “long-term, complicated and sometimes even acute”.

Mr. Wen's comments were made during a meeting here on Friday with the 11th Panchen Lama, Gyancain Norbu, in Zhongnanhai, the central leadership compound. Norbu was appointed by Beijing in 1995 in controversial circumstances in place of Gendun Choekyi Nyima, who had earlier been selected by the Dalai Lama as the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. Nyima disappeared the same year, but is still worshipped by many Tibetans in China as the 11th Panchen.

Norbu, who was in 2010 appointed to the country's top legislative advisory body, has been promoted by Beijing as the leading guiding authority of Tibetan Buddhism in China. The Panchen Lama is seen as the second most influential figure in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama, who Beijing accuses of being a separatist. The Dalai Lama, who has been in exile since 1959, says he is only seeking genuine autonomy for Tibetans and the protection of their religious and cultural rights.

In Friday's meeting, Mr. Wen called on the Panchen Lama “to play an even greater and more positive role in safeguarding the national unification and unity of all ethnic groups” and to “lead the Buddhists lamas and followers in loving the country, abiding by laws and abiding by Buddhism commandments”, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

He also pledged that “in the future the regional ethnic autonomy will continue” while the government would make “greater efforts.. to improve the lives of Tibetan compatriots, protect the environment and the region's cultural traditions, as well as the religious freedom of the Tibetan people.”

His meeting came ahead of the Tibetan New Year, which falls on February 22. Earlier on Friday, the official Global Times newspaper quoted Xu Zhitao, an official with the Communist Party's United Front Work Department, as saying “secessionists led by the Dalai Lama appeared more determined to plot conspiracies” ahead of the new year.

Mr. Chen, the Communist Party head in Tibet, warned that “irresponsible officials” who failed to fulfil their roles in “maintaining stability” would be removed from their posts and punished, in a speech on Thursday.

“We should make every effort,” he said, “to win the tough battle to maintain stability and seize the initiative in our fight against separatism”.

Beijing has blamed overseas Tibetan groups for “masterminding” the at least 16 self-immolation protests by Tibetan monks and nuns that have taken place in Sichuan province over the past year. Last month, clashes also took place between Tibetans and police forces in two

Sichuan counties, leaving at least two people dead and dozens injured.

Overseas groups reported in recent days four more self-immolation protests, as well as the killing of two Tibetans, accused of being involved in recent clashes, by the police. These incidents have however not been confirmed by the authorities.

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