KATHMANDU — China has put in place tougher rules on access to the Tibetan side of Mount Everest next year as part of preparations to take the Olympic torch to the summit of the world's highest mountain.
The new regulations, which include stricter background checks on foreign climbers, follow threats by Tibetan independence activists to step up protests against China's presence in the Himalayan region during the 2008 Summer Games.
Chinese officials "will not limit expeditions, but they will strictly vet the expedition teams," the head of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, Ang Tsering Sherpa, told AFP.
He said China plans limit the number of different nationalities represented in each climbing team, demand climbers' documents two-and-a-half months before the trip and prohibit substitutions or last-minute additions to an expedition.
"The main purpose is to run the Olympic expedition smoothly without problems. That is their main concern," said Sherpa, who was informed of the new rules during a recent meeting with Chinese representatives on planning for the 2008 Everest climbing season.
He said the restrictions did not apply to the Nepali side of the mountain.
The organisers of the Beijing Olympics plan to bring the Olympic torch to the top of the 8,848-metre (29,198-foot) peak as part of a relay that will also take in the Tibetan capital Lhasa.
The torch summit bid by a team of hardened Chinese climbers is expected to take place in early May, slightly earlier than the traditional window when lines of mountaineers often queue for access to the summit, Sherpa said.
China asserts Tibet, a vast Himalayan plateau which it has ruled since sending troops in to "liberate" the region in 1951, is an "inseparable part" of its territory.
Beijing has been targeted by "Free Tibet" protests involving foreign mountaineers over the past year.
In April, five Americans were expelled from China after staging an illegal "Free Tibet" protest at Everest base camp. The demonstration prompted Beijing to lodge a formal protest with Washington.
In 2006, China also came in for international criticism after foreign climbers witnessed, filmed and photographed the shooting of Tibetan refugees by Chinese border guards who killed a Buddhist nun.
Tibetan independence campaigners say the new Everest regulations are clearly aimed at them.
"In taking the torch to the summit, China wants to convey a message of ownership over this most potent symbol of Tibetan land," said Kate Saunders, spokeswoman for the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet.
"The new restrictions represent a more systematic attempt to control and manage the presence of international expedition teams on Everest at a crucial time for China," she added.
"Chinese officials are acutely aware that mountaineers carry the latest communications technologies and are therefore capable of transmitting information directly to the outside world."
The head of the New York-based Students for a Free Tibet claimed China was displaying a "paranoia that something will go wrong that will show they don't legitimately rule" Tibet.
"The closer the time draws for the ascent (of the Olympic torch), the tighter the Chinese are going to get," said Lhadon Tethong, vowing that activists "will do whatever we can during the time of the torch relay."