BEIJING (Reuters) - A young Tibetan man has set himself on fire in southwestern China, an exiled Tibetan activist said on Sunday, the eighth self-immolation this year in a region that has become the center of defiance of Beijing's religious controls.

The 19-year-old former monk at the Kirti monastery in Aba prefecture in Sichuan province set himself on fire on Saturday, according to Zorgyi, an India-based exiled Tibetan activist, and the London-based Free Tibet group.

The former monk had called for freedom for Tibet and the return of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to Tibet, Zorgyi said in emailed comments to Reuters.

The police extinguished the flames and beat the man, the researcher said, adding that he did not die in the course of his protest. His whereabouts are unknown.

Zorgyi said his information was based on witness accounts, while Free Tibet said its account came from sources at Kirti Monastery in the Indian town of Dharamsala, where Tibet's government-in-exile is based.

An official from the Aba prefecture information office told Reuters he "knows nothing about the incident so far" and calls to the police bureau in Aba prefecture went unanswered.

Eight ethnic Tibetans, including seven from Aba prefecture, have burned themselves since March to protest against religious controls by the Chinese government, which labels the Dalai Lama a violent separatist.

China has controlled Tibet since Communist troops marched in 1950. It says its rule has bought much needed development to a poor and backward region.

The Dalai Lama denies being a separatist and says he is merely seeking autonomy for Tibet.

(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Additional reporting by Huang Yan; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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