BEIJING - China plans to build a highway on the side of Mount Everest to ease the Olympic torch's journey to the peak of the world's tallest mountain before the 2008 Beijing Games, state media reported Tuesday.
Construction of the road, budgeted at $19.7 million would turn a 67-mile rough path from the foot of the mountain to a base camp at 17,060 feet "into a blacktop highway fenced by undulating guardrails," the Xinhua News Agency said.
Xinhua said construction, which would start next week, would take about four months. The new highway would become a major route for tourists and mountaineers, it said.
An official from the Secretariat of the Tibetan government, who declined to give his name, confirmed the project was planned, but refused to give any details. Tibet and Nepal are the most commonly used routes up the mountain.
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.
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.
The day before the route of the torch relay was announced by the Beijing organizers of the Olympics, five Americans unfurled banners at a base camp calling for an independent Tibet.
The five, from the Students for a Free Tibet group, were briefly held and then expelled from China.
Officials from the Beijing organizing committee did not immediately return phone calls asking for comment.
n Nuggets forward Nene returns to Brazil's national team: Denver Nuggets forward Nene said Tuesday he will end a four-year absence and rejoin Brazil's national team for this summer's Olympic qualifier.
"I talked a lot with my family and my team, and I realized that it was time to come back," Nene said in a statement distributed by his public relations manager, Samy Vaisman. "I want to be happy with the national team and want to help Brazil secure a spot in the Olympics."
The top two finishers in the FIBA Americas tournament from Aug. 22-Sept. 2 in Las Vegas will clinch a spot in Beijing in 2008. The Brazilians, who nearly beat the United States in an exhibition game last summer, should have one of the strongest teams.
Nene, who will not play in next month's Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, has been at odds with the Brazilian Basketball Confederation, saying it owes him money. The forward skipped the 2006 world championships, reportedly for the same reason.