April 23, 2006

Nepali anti-monarch protesters defy curfew

By Simon Denyer and Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters defied a
daytime curfew in the Nepali capital on Sunday to chant slogans
against the king, but the demonstrations seemed less intense
and more peaceful than in recent days.

Nevertheless, at least 23 people were injured in clashes
between police and protesters in different parts of the city,
some hit by rubber bullets, according to an official at a
private hospital.

King Gyanendra's offer on Friday to hand over power to an
alliance of seven political parties has failed to quell
protests against his rule, which entered an 18th day on Sunday.

Instead, a movement which started out with the aim of
restoring democracy has, for some of its participants at least,
now more radical goals.

"Police and soldiers, you are our brothers -- shoot
Gynandries," one group chanted at rows of padded and helmeted
riot police wielding sticks and shields.

Behind the police, soldiers in green camouflage uniforms
gripped submachine guns and automatic rifles, with orders to
shoot to kill if the crowd broke through.

"We will burn the crown and we will run the country," the
crowds chanted. "Gynandries, thief, leave the country."

Sunday's protests were largely confined to the ring road
surrounding the capital. Although the road lies within the
curfew zone, large stretches are in the hands of the
protesters, with burning logs and tires blocking access to
security forces.

In the north of the city, a group of protesters carried a
wooden stretcher with an effigy of a dead Gyanendra, ostensibly
on its way to cremation.

Others hung a rat from electricity wires, a banner hanging
from its body saying "Gyanendra is dead, God is great." In a
country where many people traditionally revered the monarch as
a Hindu god, the sentiments break a centuries-old taboo.

In the interior of Kathmandu, streets were devoid of
traffic and shops shuttered, but tension appeared to have
considerably eased. Children played football and badminton on
the street and people came out of their houses, chatting in
small groups.

Elsewhere in the country, about 200,000 people took part in
a rally in Dang, a government-held town in western Nepal. Tens
of thousands also marched in the southern town of Narayanghat,
which has seen some of the largest protests against the king.

Another major rally is planned for Kathmandu on Tuesday,
activists said, with party leaders vowing to take to the
streets themselves for the first time since the latest protests


On Saturday more than 100,000 people broke into Kathmandu's
city center and police opened fire in at least two places to
beat them back.

At least 150 people were wounded in the police action and a
stampede that broke out when the marchers were dispersed,
witnesses and political activists said.

The seven-party alliance which has led the protests has
rejected Gyanendra's offer to hand over executive power to a
prime minister of their choosing.

The parties do not trust the king, and want the
constitution to be changed to curb his powers. That is also a
key demand of Maoist rebels who control much of the countryside
and entered a loose alliance with the parties last year against
the king.

"The king is misleading the people," said Akkala Gurung,
36, a finance company worker and protests regular who wants
Nepal to become a "democratic republic." "We are not afraid to
die, we have to die one day anyway," she said.

The king sacked the government and took full powers in
February 2005, vowing to crush a decade-long Maoist revolt in
which more than 13,000 people have died.

Given the mood on the streets, the parties are wary of
being seen to compromise with the monarch. They want
parliament, dissolved in 2002, to be revived and the army --
which is loyal to the king -- put under its control.

The invisible hand of the Maoists may also be fuelling and
radicalizing the protests, analysts say.

The alliance has been agitating since April 6 to force
Gyanendra to restore multi-party democracy. At least 12 people
have been killed and thousands wounded in protests since then.

(Additional reporting by Raju Gopalakrishnan)