April 12, 2006

Nepal relaxes curfew, fresh protests break out

By Gopal Sharma and Y.P. Rajesh

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal's government said on Wednesday
it was relaxing a daytime curfew in the capital for the first
time in five days as violent pro-democracy protests flare
across the country.

The restrictions had been imposed for several hours a day
since Saturday in a bid to quell protests called by Nepal's
seven main political parties against King Gyanendra's power
grab 14 months ago.

But state television said the curfew would not be imposed
on Wednesday, without citing any reason for the move.

Demonstrators calling for the restoration of democracy took
to the streets, with about two dozen activists defying a ban on
protests in the heart of Kathmandu.

They shouted slogans and waved party flags before being
stopped by riot police. About half-a-dozen were arrested, while
the others were chased away by police waving batons and
protected by riot shields.

"Long live the democratic republic!" and "Down with
autocracy," they had shouted before police moved in.

Earlier, Tirtha Ram Dangol, a leader of the Nepali Congress
party, told protesters: "You will not run away. You will not
throw stones. This will be a non-violent protest."

Witnesses said 30 journalists who had joined the protests
were arrested on Wednesday morning.

Businessmen, doctors and lawyers also vowed to join the
pro-democracy campaign, but despite the protests, there were no
immediate indications of the king trying to defuse the crisis
beyond the curfew relaxation.

Instead, the royalist government has only hardened its
position and promised tough action against demonstrators,
accusing them of colluding with Maoist rebels and attacking
government forces.


The campaign, backed by Maoist insurgents, had been due to
end on Sunday but was extended indefinitely as stringent
security measures prevented big rallies against the king.

Professional groups have protested against the king in the
past but they have rarely joined hands to demonstrate together.
Their plans to unite showed that opposition to the king was
growing, analysts said.

Protests were also staged in towns and districts outside
Kathmandu and residents reached by phone said thousands of
people had taken to the streets against the king, ignoring
curfews in several places.

Doctors said hospitals were flooded with patients, some
needing treatment for bullet wounds.

On Tuesday, troops shot at activists, wounding many, after
they burned tires, chanted slogans and clashed with police in
Gongabu, a Kathmandu suburb.

It was the first time troops had opened fire in the capital
during the latest anti-king campaign and some of the wounded
were feared dead, Nepali newspaper Kantipur reported.

The report could not be confirmed immediately. Three people
have died so far since the latest round of protests began on
Thursday, all of them outside of the capital.

Reuters reporters who visited one Kathmandu hospital late
on Tuesday where activists wounded in Gongabu had been brought,
saw 39 people being treated in an overflowing emergency hall.

Political parties say hundreds of protesters have been
injured in the crackdown on the latest demonstrations so far
and more than 1,500 detained.

A government notice published in state-run Rising Nepal
newspaper on Wednesday said the authorities had banned strikes
in 15 sectors including banking, insurance, telecommunications,
hospitals, hotels, electricity and water supply.

Violators could be jailed for up to six months, it said.

Gyanendra justified taking power in February 2005 saying
politicians had failed to crush a raging Maoist revolt. But the
turmoil in the troubled nation has only worsened since.

The Maoist conflict has killed more than 13,000 people so
far and wrecked the aid-and-tourism dependent economy of one of
the 10 poorest countries in the world.

International pressure has mounted on the king to end his
crackdown and restore democracy.

The European Union, one of Nepal's largest donors, urged
the king "to take an urgent initiative to resolve the present
problems by restoring democracy and by reaching out to all
political forces to initiate a dialogue for peace."