Chinese officials are attempting to discredit Tibetans who have set themselves on fire to protest China's rule over their region.
Wu Zegang, the head of Aba Prefecture, where many of the self-immolations have taken place, said Wednesday the protests were being "orchestrated" and "planned" by foreign Tibetan exile groups who want to divide China.
"There is a great deal of evidence that the Dalai clique and the Tibetan independent forces are planning and supporting acts of self-immolation, inciting more clerics and lay people to engage in copycat incidents. They destroy lives, and use this twisted means to incite separatism through these acts of violence and terrorism."
Wu said many of the self-immolations were carried out by distressed monks who were adjusting to life as laymen. He said they had criminal records and "a very bad reputation in society."
But Stephanie Brigden of the London-based Free Tibet said such statements likely come from local Chinese leaders who are under immense pressure to maintain order ahead of a political transition later this year. She told VOA that Chinese officials are increasingly worried the self-immolations will become a large-scale protest movement similar to those that have swept Arab countries.
"These statements ... are really part of China's propaganda to deflect internal as well as external criticism that they are now facing as a result of the increased numbers of self-immolations."
Brigden also called on China to lift its ban on international observers and journalists in Tibetan areas of China.
At least three Tibetans in China have self-immolated since Saturday, including a 20-year-old woman in Gansu province. The official Xinhua news agency quoted local officials as saying the woman, identified as Tsering Kyi, had "lost her courage to live" after experiencing pressure at school and hitting her head on a radiator.
Rights groups say at least 25 Tibetans have self-immolated since March of last year to protest what they see as the Chinese government's repression of Tibetan culture and religion.
Officials in Beijing have condemned self-immolations as a form of terrorism, repeatedly accusing Tibet's exiled leader the Dalai Lama of supporting them.
On Wednesday, Xinhua quoted Li Changping, a Communist Party leader in Sichuan, as saying the Dalai Lama's "separatist activities are doomed to fail" and would not disrupt the "stable development" of Tibetan regions of China. He said the exiled leader was the "hatchet man of anti-China forces in the world."
The Dalai Lama says he is only fighting for Tibet's cultural autonomy. He has not supported the self-immolations, but he has not condemned them either.