© Tibetan Student Activists Handout/EPAMonks and civilians march in north-west China's Gansu province in 2008 as unrest amongst ethnic Tibetans spread from Lhasa.
Fate of second man unknown as self-immolation death rate in Sichuan province rises to seven in two and a half years

Two more young men, believed to be former monks, have set fire to themselves in the latest self-immolations in a troubled Tibetan area of western China, exiles and campaign groups have said.

Choepel, 19, and Khayang, 18, are thought to be from the Kirti monastery in Aba, Sichuan province, known as Ngaba to Tibetans. Choepel is believed to have died at the scene while the condition and whereabouts of Khayang are unknown, Free Tibet said.

The public security bureau in Aba denied any knowledge of an incident. "Nothing like that happened here. I am not aware of the situation," a spokeswoman told Reuters, despite claims that police officers had helped extinguish the flames and beaten the men as they took them to hospital.

Until 2009 experts knew of only one Tibetan self-immolation, by a lay person living overseas. But today's death was the second at Kirti within a week - another monk set fire to himself on Monday - and the seventh in Sichuan within two and a half years. "This is a new development ... We are all struggling for the right words to characterise what is happening," said Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet.

In August, a court jailed three lamas over the death in March of another monk, Rigzin Phuntsog, 21, also from Kirti, who set fire to himself. They were accused of denying him medical treatment by hiding him. Exile groups said the monks intervened because security officers were beating him, a claim denied by state media.

The death led to a confrontation with armed police and the number of monks at Kirti has fallen from about 2,500 to several hundred. Campaign groups said there was still a high security presence in the town, with conditions further tightened today.

Free Tibet said Choepel had been expelled from the monastery after Phuntsog's death. It is not clear why Khayang left, but exiles said his uncle was among 13 people shot dead in March 2008 as riots in Lhasa spilled over into unrest across Tibetan areas.

"There are many courageous young Tibetans who are determined to draw global attention to one of the world's greatest and longest-standing human rights crises no matter the cost to themselves," Free Tibet's director, Stephanie Brigden, said.