April 26, 2006

Nepal rebels suspend blockade of capital

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal's Maoist rebels suspended a
blockade of the capital on Wednesday after the country's
incoming prime minister assured them elections would be held
for an assembly to frame a new constitution.

The Maoists said they had lifted the blockade on Kathmandu
and major towns until parliament meets for the first time in
four years on Friday, but they reiterated their key demand -- a
new constitution and a review of the role of the monarchy.

Life returned to normal in Kathmandu after weeks of often
bloody pro-democracy and anti-monarchy protests.

But in a village in the east of the country, six people
died when an unrelated demonstration about the killing of a
woman by soldiers turned violent.

Troops opened fire on an angry crowd of about 100 people
outside an army camp, after the protesters tried to snatch
their weapons, the defense ministry said. Six were killed and
11 wounded and taken to hospital, it said.

The Maoists also set off a small bomb in a town north of
Kathmandu and killed a policeman, the ministry said.

Meanwhile the rebels, who control much of the countryside,
offered some relief to the beleaguered townspeople of Nepal by
withdrawing their blockade until Friday, following an appeal by
incoming prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala.

"We want to make it clear that if the first meeting of the
parliament does not take a positive decision on the declaration
of an unconditional constituent assembly, we will be compelled
to reimpose the blockade," Maoist leader Prachanda said.

Koirala, 84, is set to become Nepal's next prime minister
after King Gyanendra handed over power to the country's main
political parties and reinstated parliament in response to the

The veteran politician, four times prime minister and
leader of the biggest party, had earlier appealed to the
powerful Maoists to end their blockade.

"The constituent assembly is the main agenda of the new
parliament," Koirala said in a statement on Wednesday.

In Kathmandu, streets were crowded with tourists and
shoppers and public transport was working.

"I am relieved, there is no trouble now, it is peaceful,"
said Raju Shahi, who had taken his taxi out of the garage for
the first time in 17 days on Tuesday.


Political parties said their first priority would be to
bring the Maoists back into the mainstream and called for a

"We must have a ceasefire, call the Maoists for talks and
call elections for a constituent assembly," said Arjun Narsingh
K.C., a senior Nepali Congress leader. "This is one of the
first steps the new government must take."

Analysts warned there were plenty of pitfalls ahead. The
Maoist demand for an unconditional constituent assembly is
generally interpreted to mean it should have the power to strip
the king of his title and establish a republic.

But an assembly on those terms is not something the king
would be happy with, and could use the Supreme Court, dominated
by royal appointees, to block it.

It was also not clear if the Maoists would agree to lay
down their weapons before elections to the special assembly,
something parliament is expected to demand.

On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of people took to the
streets of the capital waving party flags and celebrating the
rebirth of democracy. The Maoists, however, called the king's
deal with the political parties a "sham."

They were unhappy the king's address made no mention of
their demand for a constituent assembly.

Mainstream political parties backed that demand when they
entered a loose alliance with the Maoists last year and agreed
on a roadmap to bring an end to the decade-long insurgency
which has killed more than 13,000 people.