The elected leader of the Tibetan government in exile has warned of an impending Chinese military crackdown across the restive Himalayan plateau and urged western governments to press Beijing to exercise restraint.

“The military build-up is increasing rapidly. We have seen pictures of hundreds of convoys filled with paramilitary forces with automatic machine guns moving towards various parts of Tibetan areas,” Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, told the Financial Times on Monday, referring to images sent by sources in the Tibetan region.

“We are really worried that with such a military security build-up and so many guns in the hands of Chinese police and military personnel, we fear the Chinese government is preparing for something very drastic and unforeseen and tragic.”

In late January, ethnically Tibetan areas in western China witnessed the worst outbreaks of unrest since huge riots spread across the region in March 2008.

Advocacy groups said that up to six Tibetan protesters have been shot dead and many more were injured during a spate of demonstrations that began on January 23.

The Chinese government has acknowledged only two deaths and said they occurred when police opened fire in self-defence after “mobs” attacked them.

Beijing appears to be bracing itself for further unrest in the coming weeks as the region prepares to mark the Tibetan New Year on February 22 and the anniversaries of a failed 1959 Tibetan uprising and the 2008 riots in mid-March.

On Monday, the Chinese government warned officials in Tibet that they could lose their jobs or face criminal prosecution if they failed to maintain stability in the region.

The announcement also said two cases of dereliction of duty had been reported. It gave no details but said that such cases would be dealt with harshly.

“It’s incumbent on the international community to impress upon the Chinese government that such kind of drastic, violent [and] reactive mode towards the Tibetan people will not be tolerated,” said Mr Sangay.

Mr Sangay and his government are not recognised as the legitimate government of Tibet by the Chinese or any other government.

In the last year as many as 19 Tibetans, almost all of them monks or former monks and including two nuns, have set themselves on fire in protest at Beijing’s policies towards Tibet, particularly its tight control over Tibetan Buddhism and its practitioners.

There is no tradition of self-immolation in Tibet but cases have spread across the region and multiplied in recent weeks.

On Friday, three more Tibetans were reported to have set themselves on fire in Seda county, known as Serthar in Tibetan, near the site of a protest and police shooting in late January.

Virtually all Tibetan areas in western China and the Tibet Autonomous Region have been shut to foreigners and Tibetans were being ordered to return to their registered places of residence, according to recent visitors to the region and advocacy groups.

Communications have also been cut to some areas, making it almost impossible to verify conflicting reports from the region.

Chinese government officials and media have blamed subversives and “organised crime” for the recent violence and said the wave of self-immolations are the work of terrorists and separatists organised by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.

Mr Sangay said he and the Dalai Lama have both called on Tibetans to refrain from extreme actions, including self-immolations.

Despite these admonitions “their sentiment is so strong they are choosing to die rather than live”, Mr Sangay said. “This shows that the Chinese government’s repressive policies in Tibet have clearly failed.”

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