China limits tourists, climbers for Everest torch relay
Beijing (dpa) - China is restricting trips by foreign tourists and climbers to Mount Everest before an Olympic torch relay to the summit of the 8,844-metre peak, sources said on Thursday, as pre-Olympic protests against Chinese rule of its Tibet region continue to grow.
The restrictions remain opaque but are likely to apply at least until after the planned ascent of the peak with a special high-altitude, wind-proof Olympic torch between late April and mid-May, according to tour operators and officials contacted on Thursday.
"All climbing activities are cancelled," said a tour operator from the Polar Land Exploration company based in Lhasa, the capital of China's Tibet region. "If you want to register, you have to wait until July," the tour operator said by telephone.
Polar Land said Chinese tourists may still be allowed to travel to Everest Base Camp and that foreign tourists could travel to the nearby Rombuk monastery, from which the summit of Everest is visible in clear weather.
A letter posted on mountaineering website www.mounteverest.com from the Lhasa-based China Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA) asked expedition based leaders in Nepal to postpone tours until May 10 or later.
The letter cited crowded routes, environmental pressure and "potential safety problems" on the mountain.
"This is an ominous indication of the controls that China is likely to impose as the flame travels from the top of Everest through Tibet," John Ackerly, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said of the CTMA letter.
"Beijing is using the Olympics torch ceremony, which should stand for human freedoms and dignity, to bolster its territorial claim over Tibet," Ackerly said in a statement.
But a CTMA official contacted by telephone on Thursday said the permit application procedure for Everest climbs this spring was operating "normally". "This is a misunderstanding," he said when asked about the letter apparently implying a temporary ban on foreign climbers.
Last year tourists and climbers embarrassed China's ruling Communist Party, which claims Tibet is an "inalienable" part of China, in two separate incidents close to 5,200-metre Everest Base Camp.
Video footage taken in June by Romanian mountaineers showed a person wearing Tibetan robes collapsing onto snow after apparently being shot by a Chinese soldier as a group of Tibetans climbed one of the high passes on China's border with Nepal.
The video provided rare first-hand evidence to back claims by Tibetan activists of brutal repression in the region by Chinese troops and police.
The Chinese government admitted that one Tibetan died as the group was attempting to cross illegally into Nepal, like hundreds of other Tibetan refugees every year. Beijing claimed that its troops had returned fire after an attack by the Tibetans.
In late April, China deported five US citizens who staged a brief protest to support Tibetan independence at Base Camp in China's Tibet region.
News of the restrictions on tourism this spring also comes amid protests this week at monasteries in Lhasa and other areas of Tibet.
Police reportedly detained dozens of Tibetan monks after hundreds of people joined several protests that coincided with this week's 49th anniversary of a Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule that was crushed by troops. The Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's highest leader, fled to exile India after the uprising.