Chinese security forces allegedly opened fire on Tibetan monks gathered at a hilltop to offer rituals for their exiled leader on Saturday, the latest flare up that undermines hopes of a softer stance towards the restive minority.

Hundreds of robe-clad Tibetan monks marched towards a sacred hill in Daofu county in the Chinese province of Sichuan when shots rang out.

It was the birthday of the Dalai Lama and monks had put up pictures of the religious leader in exile, reviled by Beijing as a “separatist”.

Without warning, the People’s Armed Police opened fire and used tear gas to break up the crowd, according to Tibetan rights groups.

Two monks were shot in the head and several others were wounded, AFP reports. One of the monks is reportedly in critical condition.

“Some Tibetans present argued that burning incense was not a crime. Without warning, according to several Tibetan sources, police opened fire on the unarmed crowd and used tear gas,” the US-based International Campaign for Tibet said.

Chinese authorities denied the allegations, saying “no incident of this kind” ever happened.

China’s top official in charge of religious groups and ethnic minorities vowed on Tuesday to step up the fight against the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing labels as a “violent splittist”.

“For the sake of national utility and the development of stability in Tibetan regions, we must take a clear-cut stand and deepen the struggle against the Dalai clique,” Yu Zhengsheng was quoted by Xinhua news agency as saying.