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File picture shows hikers walking near the Matterhorn mountain above the village of Zermatt September 10, 2007. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse


ZURICH (Reuters) - Zermatt has been forced to withdraw an invitation to 10 Nepalese sherpas to help restore trails around the Matterhorn as part of the 150th anniversary of the summit's conquest, after a bureaucratic tangle left them with no entry permits into Switzerland.

The snag scuppers plans by Zermatt officials who had hoped to showcase the historic local ties to Nepal, which had help from Swiss air rescue to develop a similar system in the Himalayas.

The Swiss migration office said it had never received an application for work permits for the sherpas to help on a two-month project to restore an eroded 3-km (two-mile) path leading to the Hoernli hut, the gateway to the mountain.

Sherpas from Nepal have experience restoring paths without machines or cement in a way compatible with the mountain environment, Zermatt tourism officials said.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Office for Migration in Berne said on Thursday the office had "a generally favourable stance on such projects, and regularly approves them provided they fulfil the legal requirements".

But Zermatt had attempted to invite the sherpas on the grounds of cultural exchange and education, when in fact their stay was a working one, she said.

"If the community had prepared a bit earlier and more thoroughly with cantonal and federal officials, we would have evaluated the necessary work permits," the Berne-based migration office said.

Zermatt said it had dropped the project after several efforts to intervene on behalf of the sherpas failed, and would instead look for a "Swiss solution" to restore the path.

The first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, by British climber Edward Whymper, is closely linked to the birth of alpinism and the rise of tourism in the Swiss alps. The dramatic peak is scaled by thousands of climbers annually.

The Hoernli hut is closed until next July, when it reopens in time for the 150th anniversary festivities.

Switzerland made headlines five months ago when voters narrowly backed quotas on immigration in a referendum initiated by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP).

(Reporting by Katharina Bart; editing by Andrew Roche)

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