BEIJING (Reuters) - Tibet is an inseparable part of China's "sacred" territory, and religious figures should promote national unity and ethnic harmony, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said during a rare visit to a region that is a focus for international rights concerns.
Chinese troops marched into Tibet in 1950 in what China officially terms a peaceful liberation, and has ruled it with an iron fist even since.
It is one of Beijing's most sensitive territorial issues, and has been hit by repeated anti-Chinese protests, although the region has fairly been quiet since the last large-scale demonstrations in 2008.
China routinely denies charges from rights groups and exiles of repression and says its rule ended serfdom and brought prosperity to what was a backward region, and that it fully respects the rights of the Tibetan people.
Li, who visited Tibet from July 25 to July 27, went to two major sites connected to Tibetan Buddhism, state news agency Xinhua said late on Saturday.
At the Jokhang Temple, which was damaged by a fire in February, Li inspected a monument dating back to the eighth century which marks an alliance between Tibet and the Tang Dynasty, Xinhua said.
"Since ancient times Tibet has been an inseparable part of the sacred territory of the motherland," the report cited Li as saying in front of the monument.
Li said he hoped religious figures can protect national unity and make contributions to ethnic harmony, he added.
The report made no mention of the fire.
Li also went to the Potala Palace, like the Jokhang Temple a UNESCO World Heritage Site, once home to the Dalai Lama.
The current Dalai Lama, the highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, fled into exile to India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
China accuses him of being a dangerous separatist, though he says he only seeks genuine autonomy for Tibet. He remains widely revered in all Tibetan parts of China.
Li said he hoped Tibet can safeguard national unity and maintain lasting peace and stability, Xinhua added.
Senior state leaders only rarely visit Tibet, due to security and climatic considerations, as Tibet sits high above sea level and has thin air.
Rights groups says the situation for ethnic Tibetans inside what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region remains extremely difficult.
Last week, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Tibet's people "have been brutally repressed by the Chinese government".
In June, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said conditions were "fast deteriorating" in Tibet.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; editing by Richard Pullin)