By Nick Mulvenney
EVEREST BASE CAMP, China (Reuters) - A Tibetan woman took the Olympic torch the last steps to the top of Everest on Thursday, realizing "a dream of all Chinese people", but Tibetan exiles criticized Beijing for politicizing the Games.
"Long live Tibet!" and "Long live Beijing!", the climbers, all wearing red, shouted joyously into a TV camera after unfurling the Chinese national flag, the Olympic flag and a flag bearing the Beijing Olympic logo.
The ambitious project to take the torch to the Himalayan peak was cast as the highlight of the relay ahead of the Games, which start in exactly three months' time, and followed weeks of protests against Beijing's rule in Tibet.
"We have realized a promise to the world and a dream of all the Chinese people," base camp commander Li Zhixin told reporters after being mobbed by jubilant friends and colleagues.
Communist China has spent billions of dollars on staging the Olympics, eager to project the image of a modern and vibrant country. But protests during the international leg of the torch relay have bruised Chinese pride and provoked a surge of nationalist sentiment.
Exiled Tibetan officials and rights groups said the Everest flame was in bad taste and not in keeping with the spirit of the Games.
"During these times when the situation in Tibet is very grave and grim we felt it is very provocative to take the Olympic torch to the Tibetan side of the mountain," said Thubten Samphel, secretary of the exiled government's information department in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala."The Chinese are suppressing the Tibetan people ... it is not in harmony with the spirit of the Olympics," he told Reuters.
Tenzin Dorjee, deputy director of Students for a Free Tibet, said in a statement e-mailed from New York: "Beijing's conquest of Everest is a political move meant to reassert China's control of Tibet."
Chinese troops marched into Tibet in 1950, and nine years later the Dalai Lama fled to India after a failed uprising against communist rule. He is branded a "separatist" by China, but says he only wants greater autonomy for the region.
"AGREED TO DISAGREE"
Anti-Chinese protesters caused serious disruption to some legs of the main torch relay on its journey around the world after deadly riots in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, on March 14 and subsequent unrest in other Tibetan areas of China.
Tibetan groups said they planned prayer vigils around the world later on Thursday to mourn those killed in protests in Tibet.
China says a "Dalai Lama clique" was responsible for the disturbances in Tibet and protests over the Olympic torch.
The Chinese state-run media this week accused the Tibetan spiritual leader of trying to blacken China's name and prevent its rise, days after the two sides held a rare round of talks.
However, an envoy to the Dalai Lama said Chinese negotiators had shown a willingness to engage with the Tibetan side during recent talks, despite major differences on important issues."We agreed on few and disagreed on many ... We agreed to disagree," the envoy, Lodi Gyari, told reporters in Dharamsala. "These views were expressed in a frank and candid manner."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said his government's attitude towards dialogue was "sincere".
"We also hope the Dalai Lama can show sincerity by taking concerted actions to truly stop separatist activities, stop plotting and provoking violent actions and stop disrupting the Beijing Olympics," Qin told a regular news conference.
EMOTIONS RUN HIGH
On Thursday morning, five climbers, two of them women, staged the torch relay just shy of the world's highest peak amid strong winds and minus-30-degree temperatures.
"Beijing welcomes you!" and "tashi delek", the climbers said -- using a Tibetan greeting meaning "may everything be well" -- after escorting the flame in a mini-relay to the 8,848-metre (29,030-foot) peak at the end of a six-hour climb.
Beijing student Huang Chungui passed the flame to ethnic Tibetan woman Ciren Wangmu, who trudged the final steps unaided by oxygen to hold the torch aloft.
That prompted jubilation among the reserve climbers, officials and a small team of journalists who had endured thin air at high altitude, sub-freezing temperatures and basic sanitation for nearly two weeks as they waited for the final ascent.
The tent to which the live pictures were relayed from the summit was rent with cheers and tears, and several renditions of the Chinese national anthem echoed out across the Himalayas.The Everest climbing team, which included 22 Tibetans, eight Han Chinese and one man from the Tujia minority, had been on the mountain for more than a week preparing the route along the north-east ridge.
Concerned that protesters would try to disrupt the assault on Everest, which sits astride the border of the Chinese region of Tibet and Nepal, China had effectively closed off the region and released only limited information to the media.
The flame that crested Everest's peak was taken from the main Olympic torch when it arrived in Beijing in March.
The Beijing organizers paused the main torch relay, scheduled to pass through the southern city of Shenzhen on Thursday, while the final push for the summit was taking place.
The Everest flame will be reunited with the main flame later in the relay, possibly when it passes through Lhasa in mid-June.
(Additional reporting by Abhishek Madhukar in DHARAMSALA, India; and Beijing bureau; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)
(Take a look at the Countdown to Beijing blog at blogs.reuters.com/china)