June 12, 2006

Nepal rebels seek new talks to tackle differences

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal's Maoist rebels said on Monday
that a new round of peace talks with the government would be
held soon, a day after the guerrilla chief met a senior
minister in a remote village in the west of the country.

The meeting between Prachanda and chief government
negotiator Krishna Prasad Sitaula was the elusive rebel
leader's first known encounter with a high ranking government
official since the insurgency began in 1996.

It took place in Sikalesh, a small village about 200 km
(125 miles) west of Kathmandu.

"They met for more than two hours and talked about making
the ongoing talks successful," said Krishna Bahadur Mahara, the
chief rebel negotiator who was present at the meeting.

The meeting, over tea and biscuits at a hillside country
home, discussed plans for talks between the rebel chief and
Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, he said.

"We want this to take place early," Mahara told Reuters,
but gave no date. "We are trying to narrow down our differences
in informal meetings and want to take some political decisions
during the next formal talks."

Nepal's multi-party government, formed after King Gyanendra
gave in to pro-democracy protests in April, and the Maoists,
who supported the mass campaign, held preliminary talks last
month for the first time since a failed dialogue in 2003.

Officials said the cabinet decided on Monday to withdraw
charges against hundreds of Maoists held under a controversial
anti-terror law that allowed security forces to detain suspects
for up to one year without trial.

"Our lawyers are working on this and the detained Maoists
will be freed soon," Home (interior) Ministry spokesman Baman
Prasad Neupane said.

Maoist negotiator Mahara said the move would help build
confidence ahead of the next round of peace talks. More than
300 rebels were expected to be freed, he told reporters.

Local media said the government and the rebels differed
over holding elections to a special assembly to draft a new
constitution and decide the future of the monarchy, a key
Maoist demand.

Last month, both sides agreed on forming such an assembly
but fixed no date for the vote.

The Maoists want the government first to dissolve the
parliament reinstated in April, call a "national political
conference" of all stakeholders and include them in an interim

The government says it is ready to include the Maoists in
the cabinet but refuses to dissolve parliament.

The Maoist conflict has claimed more than 13,000 lives
since 1996 and exacerbated the economic woes of Nepal, one of
the world's poorest countries.