China's mountainous region of Tibet is facing an urgent task to maintain stability and all government workers must be on their highest guard ahead of the Tibetan New Year and the fourth anniversary of riots, a newspaper said on Monday.

China has stepped up security in what it calls the Tibet Autonomous Region and other Tibetan parts of the country following a series of self-immolations and sporadic protests against Chinese rule, mostly in Sichuan and Gansu provinces.

The official Tibet Daily newspaper, while mentioning neither the recent unrest nor the burnings, said the region faced a pressing challenge to maintain stability, especially in March, which marks five years since deadly riots erupted across the Tibetan region.

The Tibetan New Year, or Losar, falls on February 22.

China has ruled Tibet since 1950, when Communist troops marched in. It rejects criticism that it is eroding Tibetan culture and faith, saying its rule has ended serfdom and brought development to a backward region.

The Tibet Daily, citing a ruling Communist Party notice, said government departments at every level must put all their efforts into maintaining a stable, unified social situation in our region.

Officials must have a clear head, and fully recognise the extreme importance and urgency of the job of maintaining stability, the newspaper said.

One of Tibet's most senior exiled Buddhist leaders, the Karmapa Lama, said he was saddened by the self-immolations and that he hopes they will yield a change in policy that will bring our Tibetan brothers and sisters relief.

But the Karmapa Lama, who fled Tibet in 2000 and lives in exile along with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in northern India, stopped short, of urging an end to the burnings. In late November, the monk appealed for Tibetans in China to find more constructive ways to advance their cause.

Having been given the name Karmapa, I belong to a 900-year-old reincarnation lineage that has historically avoided any political engagement, a tradition I have no intention of changing, he said. And yet as a Tibetan, I have great sympathy and affection for the Tibetan people and I have great misgivings about remaining silent while they are in pain.

Three Tibetans in southwestern China had set themselves ablaze in protest against Chinese rule, Radio Free Asia reported on Saturday, the latest in a series of self-immolations over the past year. [ID:nL4E8D50AK]

NEW LEVELS OF REPRESSION

Tibetan advocacy groups say as many as seven Tibetans were shot dead and dozens wounded during protests last month in a heavily Tibetan part of Sichuan province. Police and security forces quelled the protests.

The Chinese government has repeatedly blamed exiled Tibetans for stoking the protests, including spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising.

Tibet's government in exile said on Monday that the spate of self-immolations indicate to us that the Chinese policies in Tibet have reached new levels of repression.

They represent an emphatic rejection of the continued occupation of Tibet and repressive policies of the Chinese government, Dicki Chhoyang, the minister of information and international relations for the Central Tibetan Administration, said in an emailed statement.

The state-run China Daily said that youth unemployment was probably also to blame for the latest violence in Sichuan's Seda county -- one of the three sites of the shootings.

The majority of the crowds are young people who do not have jobs, Seda county director Palden, who like many ethnic Tibetans uses only one name, told the newspaper.

So the priority is to improve life quality in Seda county and provide enough job opportunities for young people.

In March 2008, riots and protests erupted in Tibet's capital, Lhasa, and spread to other regions in China's western border regions including Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu provinces.

On Saturday, U.S. Senator John McCain warned Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun that the Arab Spring is coming to China and highlighted the number of Tibetans burning themselves to death.

(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee,; Editing by Nick Macfie)