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BEIJING (Reuters) - China on Friday officially opened a $2-billion (1.2 billion pounds) extension of its controversial railway into Tibet, state media reported, linking the Tibetan capital of Lhasa with a key Buddhist site.
Tibet is a highly sensitive region, not just because of continued local opposition to Chinese control, but because of the region's strategic position next to neighbours India, Nepal and Myanmar.
In 2006, China opened the railway to Lhasa, which passes spectacular icy peaks on the Tibetan highlands, reaching altitudes as high as 5,000 m (16,400 ft) above sea level, as part of government development efforts.
Critics of the railway, including exiled Tibetans and rights groups, say it has spurred an influx of long-term migrants who threaten Tibetans' cultural integrity, which rests on Buddhist beliefs and a traditional herding lifestyle.
The new 13.28 billion yuan (1.32 billion pounds) extension goes to Shigatse, the traditional seat of Tibetan Buddhism's second-highest figure, the Panchen Lama, and reduces travel time from Lhasa to around two hours from four hours by road now, the official Xinhua news agency said.
At a cost of 50,000 yuan per metre (ft), the railway lines is the most expensive ever built in China, because of the harsh terrain it traverses, making it necessary to build numerous bridges and tunnels, the agency said.
The first passenger train is scheduled to leave Lhasa on Saturday morning, it added.
China plans further extensions of the railway line, to the borders of India, Nepal and Bhutan, by 2020.
China had long mooted the plan, but its efforts were slowed by the difficulty and expense of building in such a rugged and remote region.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)