Triumph for Beijing as Olympic flame reaches the top of the world

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The Independent Online

Chinese Olympic pride reached new peaks yesterday as mountaineers held the Olympic flame aloft on the summit of Everest, the most spectacular moment yet in a global torch relay dogged by Tibetan independence protests.

There were ecstatic reactions in Beijing, which will host the Olympic Games in August, as the group of climbers celebrated China's first major Olympic victory at 29,030ft atop the mountain the Chinese call Qomolangma. The sight of the flame reaching the summit is the first piece of good news for the organisers of the Olympics for weeks.

There was little chance of Tibetan independence protesters spoiling this carefully orchestrated party with demonstrations like those staged in London, Paris and San Francisco, after China's crackdown on Tibetan protests in Lhasa and other areas in March.

Five climbers, two of them women, staged the relay just shy of the peak after a six-hour climb in strong winds and -30C temperatures. All of them wore red climbing gear and shouted "Beijing welcomes you," "Long live Tibet!" and "Long live Beijing!" on the peak. The climbers unfurled the Chinese national flag, the Olympic flag and the Beijing Olympic flag.

The team was composed of 22 Tibetans, eight ethnic Han Chinese and a man from the Tujia minority. The group had been on the mountain for more than a week preparing the route along the north-east ridge.

A Beijing student, Huang Chungui, passed the flame to an ethnic Tibetan woman, Ciren Wangmu, who made the climb without oxygen. "This is an unprecedented feat in Olympic history ... it fully reflects the Olympic motto of 'Faster, higher, stronger'," said Zhang Zhijian, secretary general of the Chinese Mountaineering Association .

The Everest flame will be reunited with the main flame later in the relay, possibly when it passes through Lhasa in mid-June.

Tibetan independence groups said the Everest leg had been made imperative after the recent protests in Tibet, which showed a rejection by Tibetans of Chinese rule. "By taking the torch up the Tibetan side of Everest during the domestic Chinese leg of the torch relay, China is clearly attempting to underscore its baseless claims to sovereignty over Tibet," said Matt Whitticase of Free Tibet Campaign.

The strong international reaction to the Tibetan crackdown prompted Beijing to hold talks with envoys of the exiled Tibetan spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama, over the weekend. One envoy, Lodi Gyari, said that Chinese negotiators had shown a willingness to engage with the Tibetan side during "frank and candid" negotiations, despite major differences on important issues. "There were strong and divergent views on the nature as well as the causes of the recent tragic events in Tibet," he added in a statement from Dharamsala in India, home of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

On internet censorship, another issue that has dogged the organisation of the Games, Beijing pledged to lift censorship during the Games as "much as possible" but the Technology Minister said: "To protect the youth, there are controls on unhealthy websites." China keeps a tight grip on the internet and blocks sites containing potentially dissenting material.