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Chinese police detain 39 in new Mongol unrest: rights group

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese police detained at least 39 ethnic Mongol herders protesting over land rights in the northern Chinese region of Inner Mongolia, a U.S.-based rights group said on Thursday, in the latest incident of unrest in the coal-rich region.

The protests in Inner Mongolia are the latest flare up of ethnic tension in China, which is the scene of sporadic violence in both the far western Xinjiang region and in Tibetan areas, which have long chaffed at Chinese rule.

The herders were detained on Monday when more than 100 people demonstrated outside a local government building and the Inner Mongolian city of Bayannur, the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center said in a statement.

Protesters told the rights group that riot police beat them with electric batons.

Ethnic Mongols in China have long complained that mining and desertification have destroyed their traditional grazing lands, and that the government has forced them to settle in permanent dwellings in defiance of their herding traditions.

The protests came after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited the region last week. Demonstrators protested in the regional capital of Hohhot from March 26 to March 28, the group said, calling for an end to "illegal land grabs" and for Han Chinese miners and farmers to vacate traditional grasslands.

Protesters were taken back to their homes by "hundreds" of local police, the group said.

Calls seeking comment to the Inner Mongolia government's propaganda office, which handles media enquiries, either went unanswered, or were met with curt refusals to answer questions.

China jailed six herders in the resource-rich region in January after they tried to defend grazing land from expropriation by a forestry firm in a case that led to widespread protests.

Inner Mongolia, which covers more than a 10th of China's land mass and has its largest coal reserves, was rocked by protests in 2011 after an ethnic Mongol herder was killed by a truck after taking part in protests against pollution caused by a coal mine.

Ethnic Mongols now make up less than 20 percent of the region's population of about 24 million. Before the Communist revolution in 1949, Mongols far outnumbered majority Han Chinese.

The United States has expressed concern about the fate of China's most famous Mongol dissident, Hada, who was detained almost as soon as he completed a 15-year sentence for separatism in 2010.

(Reporting By Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Ben Blanchard)

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