April 16, 2006

Nepal protests spread to tourist quarter

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal's anti-monarchy protests spread
to the usually off-limits tourist district in Kathmandu on
Sunday, with hundreds of people chanting slogans against King
Gyanendra and burning tyres on the street.

Police arrested four people during the protest in the
Thamel district, a maze of alleys full of backpacker hotels,
bars, curio shops and trekking and travel agencies which is a
magnet for most tourists entering the country.

Protests were held elsewhere in the city as well, with
vehicles off the street on the 11th day of a general strike
called by political parties. Around 20 people were detained
during a protest by journalists.

Since Sunday is not a holiday in Nepal, many people could
be seen walking to work down Kathmandu's main thoroughfares.

"We will burn the crown and run the country," youths
shouted as they danced around burning tyres in the center of
Thamel. "Death to the government."

Thamel has usually been insulated from street protests in
Nepal, because of worries it would affect the tourist trade,
which makes up a large chunk of the impoverished nation's

Many visiting the kingdom trek in the Himalayan mountains,
while those on expeditions to Mount Everest usually stay in the
capital for some days to stock up on equipment.

Thamel is in the center of the capital, and less than a km
(a half-mile) from the Narayanhity Palace where King Gyanendra
lives. No demonstrations are allowed anywhere in the vicinity,
but police appeared loath to put down the protest, perhaps
because of the hundreds of tourists watching.

Squads of riot police were out in force just outside
Thamel, making sporadic forays into the district.

"We thought democracy was for politicians, but we made a
mistake," said Shiva Lamichhane, a trekking operator among the
protesters. "For sustainable business, we need democracy."

Most tourists watched the protests bemused, with many
taking photographs.

"I am scared but also enjoying it," said Margot van Melle,
from Ghent in Belgium, who was visiting for a trekking holiday
with a tour group. "But compared to Europe this is very

Amy Busteed, a visitor from Brisbane in Australia, said the
protests appeared to be inevitable.

"It's something that has had to be done in the country for
a very long time," she said. "But it has obviously distracted
from the shops being open and us traveling to further places."

King Gyanendra sacked the government and assumed full power
in February 2005. A seven-party political alliance, which has
been opposing him since then, launched a general strike on
April 6, bringing the nation to a standstill.

At least four people have been killed and hundreds wounded
in police firing and baton charges on demonstrators. But
neither side looks likely to back down from the confrontation.

The king has offered to hold elections by April next year,
but activists say he is not to be trusted and should
immediately hand over power to an all-party government.

(Additional reporting by Gopal Sharma)