April 26, 2006

Nepali capital bustles, but there’s sense of unease

By Raju Gopalakrishnan

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Kathmandu was back to its usual
bustling self on Wednesday after weeks of crippling protests
and curfews, but an underlying sense of unease persisted in the
Nepali capital over Maoist threats of a blockade.

Horns blared as traffic inched forward on crowded streets,
the bazaars were chock-a-block with vendors and shoppers and,
on the surface, it seemed like just another day in the city of
1.5 million people.

"For now, it is normal, but business has yet to pick up
fully," said Geeta Thapa, owner of a shop selling household
goods, including buckets, glasses, plates and saucers.

"I opened my shop after 20 days on Tuesday, but I fear
there may be more trouble which may force me to shut it again."

Kathmandu was paralyzed by anti-monarchy protests and a
general strike from April 6 until Tuesday, when political
parties called off the campaign after King Gyanendra agreed to
reconvene the dissolved parliament. But Maoist rebels, who
control large swathes of the countryside, punctured the

The rebels, fighting to overthrow the monarchy since 1996,
announced a blockade of Kathmandu and district towns until the
parliament called elections for a special assembly to write a
fresh constitution. They later said the blockade was suspended
until Friday, when the parliament holds its first session.

But the first announcement created a scare. Only 75 trucks
had entered the Kathmandu valley by late afternoon at the
Nagdhunga checkpoint.

That is the main entry point into the capital from the
southern lowlands and from India. Hundreds of trucks and
tankers pass through on a normal day, bringing in up to 90
percent of the city's consumer goods and fuel.

"Some trucks are coming, but there is lot of fear," said
Chandra Bahadur K.C., an inspector at the checkpoint. "But we
hear the blockade has been lifted so some more may come by the


Truck driver Sandesh Bhetwal said he had braved the
blockade in the morning to bring vegetables into the city. He
was returning to the countryside in the afternoon, his truck
packed with people taking a ride and scores of empty vegetable

"There is a risk, but we can't carry on like this for
long," Bhetwal said. "We have to do some work to make a

The Maoists burned three vehicles in outlying towns on
Wednesday morning to enforce the blockade, witnesses said.

At the Kalimati fruit and vegetable market, one of the
city's biggest, piles of tomatoes, cabbage, spinach and lemons
were on sale, but most of the produce was locally grown.

"There is a shortage of onions and potatoes, which come
from outside," said Rabindra Shah, adding that although they
were freely available, the price of onions had doubled since
the anti-monarchy protests began.

"If there is a blockade, prices will rise further."

Most gas stations in Kathmandu were closed, with signs
saying "No Petrol."

Kumar Lama, the operator of a gas station on the western
outskirts which was open, said existing stocks had been
exhausted and fresh supplies were only coming in a trickle.

"We got one truck of supplies yesterday after 12 days, and
that is what we are selling now," he said. "We don't know when
the next one will come. We don't know what will happen

(Additional reporting by Gopal Sharma)