LHASA: Chinese authorities have put on hold plans to build a highway on the side of Mount Everest to ease the Olympic torch's journey to its peak, a government official said Friday.
The project, budgeted at 150 million yuan (US$19.7 million; ¤14.7 million), was to have turned a 108-kilometer (67-mile) rough path into a blacktop highway that snaked from the foot of the mountain to a base camp at 5,200 meters (17,060 feet).
"The paved road project is on hold," Ju Jianhua, director of Tibet's Foreign Affairs Department, told The Associated Press. He refused to give a reason for the delay or any other details.
Zhang Tianhua, deputy director general of Tibet's Environmental Protection Bureau, said Friday that workers were filling holes in the existing dirt and stone road, which was built in 1978, and were repairing portions that had been washed out.
The new highway was to be a major route for tourists and mountaineers, and local officials praised it as a way to make life easier for residents in the area. Tibet and Nepal are the most commonly used routes up the mountain.
While some activists have expressed concern about the road's environmental impact on the region, where global warming is causing glacial retreat, Tibetan officials have said that protecting the fragile ecosystem was a priority.
In April, organizers for the Beijing Summer Olympics announced ambitious plans for the longest torch relay in Olympic history _ an 85,000-mile, 130-day route that would cross five continents and reach the 29,035-foot summit of Everest, the world's highest peak.
Taking the Olympic torch to the top of the mountain _ seen by some as a way for Beijing to underscore its claims to Tibet _ is expected to be one of the relay's highlights.
China says it has ruled Tibet for centuries, although many Tibetans say their homeland was essentially an independent state for most of that time. Chinese communist troops occupied Tibet in 1951, and Beijing continues to rule the region with a heavy hand.