China accused the Dalai Lama on Wednesday of stirring religious conflicts in Tibet, pressing its criticisms of the exiled leader even amid sensitive negotiations on establishing a more permanent dialogue.

A report by the official Xinhua News Agency cited officials in Tibet as saying the Dalai Lama inspired an attack at a monastery last month by a group of Buddhist monks who smashed a pair of statues of a protective deity and brawled with worshippers.

"On a fundamental level, it was provoked by the Dalai clique, whose purpose is to arouse conflict between different sects of Tibetan Buddhism, thus sabotaging the unity of Tibet," Xinhua quoted Lhasa Mayor Norbu Dunzhub as saying.

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The conflict revolves around a dispute over a Tibetan deity, Dorgje Shugden, whose worship has been criticized by the Dalai Lama as a divisive force in Tibetan Buddhism.

At least one of the statues destroyed in the attack at the Ganden Monastery, a key center of the Dalai Lama's Gelug sect, was apparently of Dorgje Shugden.

China has repeatedly labeled the Dalai Lama a separatist seeking to use his religious authority to gain independence for Tibet.

There was no immediate comment on China's allegations from spokesmen for the Dalai Lama's government in exile in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala.

Chinese communist troops occupied the Himalayan region in 1951. The Dalai Lama fled into exile in India following an abortive 1959 uprising against increasingly heavy-handed Chinese rule.

Xinhua said the Dalai Lama inspired the attack by ordering his followers to threaten monks worshipping Dorgje Shugden at Ganden and another key monastery, Sera.

"What the Dalai Lama has done violates the religious freedom of believers," said Zhang Qingli, Tibet's Communist Party secretary, according to Xinhua.

China's verbal attacks on the Dalai Lama have continued despite tentative steps toward dialogue.

Envoys of the Dalai Lama have attended four rounds of talks with Chinese officials since 2002 that are believed to be focused on the Dalai Lama's calls for more autonomy for Tibet to protect its unique Buddhist culture.

The most recent meetings took place in southern China in February. The talks are not yet believed to have produced any substantial results.