KATHMANDU (AFP) — Nepal will block access to Mount Everest in May to prevent pro-Tibetan protests while China takes the Olympic torch to the roof of the world, the tourism minister told AFP on Friday.
The announcement came amid an eruption of protests this week believed to be the biggest in Tibet in two decades and also coincided with demonstrations in India by Tibetan exiles seeking to pressure China ahead of the Games in August.
"Expedition teams will not be allowed to move from Nepal's Everest base camp from May 1 to May 10," said the minister, Prithvi Subba Gurung.
The 8,848-metre (29,028-feet) mountain -- the world's highest -- straddles the border between Nepal and Chinese-controlled Tibet.
A northern route runs through Tibet with the southern route -- followed by Everest pioneers Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay -- through Nepal.
"We have received a request from China not to allow people on the mountain while the Olympic torch is on Everest," the minister said.
"We don't want Nepal's territory to be used by a separatist movement," the minister said.
The China Tibet Mountaineering Association said this week that overcrowding and environmental pressures meant they had to ask all commercial expeditions to stay off the mountain on the Tibetan approach until after May 10.
But mountaineering officials in Beijing had denied that a ban had been put in place.
First climbed in 1953 by Hillary and sherpa Norgay, Everest has since been summitted more than 3,000 times.
High-altitude workers were due to set off next week for the mountain to start laying out kilometres of ropes and scores of ladders that are needed for large commercial operations.
The main summit season for Everest is May, and the ban for the first 10 days of the month is likely to have dire consequences for the lucrative expedition trade, one senior Nepali mountaineering official said.
In the "death zone" above 8,000 metres, there is only one third of the oxygen at sea level and people must acclimatise by climbing up and down the lower part of the mountain for weeks prior to any summit attempt.
"Expeditions are going to have lots more difficulties and complications," said Ang Tsering Sherpa who, as well as being president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, also runs an agency that offers Everest packages.
"There may not be enough time for people to acclimatise before a summit push," he told AFP.
Everest's southern approach becomes impassable after late May, as the melting Khumbu icefalls just outside base camp become too dangerous to cross.
This week's pro-Tibet protests have coincided with the anniversary of a 1959 uprising against Chinese rule that Tibetan groups say was brutally crushed and led to the deaths of tens of thousands.
The government in Kathmandu respects Beijing's "One China" policy, which sees Tibet as an integral part of the people's republic.
However, a "gentleman's agreement" between the United Nations and Nepal sees some 2,500 refugees per year cross from Tibet into Nepal and on to the home of the Dalai Lama in the northern Indian hill station of Dharamshala.
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