June 16, 2006

Nepal’s PM and rebel chief hold talks

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal's Maoist rebel chief Prachanda
began talks with Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala on Friday
in a bid to iron out differences before holding landmark
elections and drafting a new constitution.

The talks in Kathmandu between Koirala, who heads a
multi-party, interim administration, and Prachanda was the
first known high-level meeting between the rebels and the
government since the revolt began 10 years ago.

"The main agenda for the meeting is to discuss early
elections for the constituent assembly and solve the political
hurdles for this," rebel spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara said.

The two leaders, assisted by their negotiators, talked for
two hours before leaders of Nepal's seven main political
parties joined them.

Prachanda, whose assumed name means Awesome, has led a
bloody war against the monarchy in the impoverished Himalayan
nation in which more than 13,000 people have been killed.

Speaking to Reuters in a rare interview in western Nepal on
Thursday, he said peace talks with the government which started
in May were largely back on track after initial troubles.

But differences remained over disarming the rebel army and
a Maoist demand for dissolution of the reinstated parliament
before elections for a special assembly, he said. The assembly
will draft a new constitution to decide the future of the

On Friday, Prachanda flew into Kathmandu in a private
helicopter and drove straight to Koirala's high-security
official residence in the heart of the capital.


He was accompanied by his second-in-command, Baburam
Bhattarai, and Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula as they
arrived at Koirala's house.

Soldiers stood behind sandbag bunkers while dozens of
Maoist guerrillas in plainclothes, and apparently unarmed,
prevented media cameramen from taking pictures.

The government and the rebels are observing a ceasefire for
more than a month after weeks of street protests in April
forced King Gyanendra to end his absolute rule and hand power
back to the seven mainstream political parties.

The Maoist insurgency and the subsequent political turmoil
in Nepal has badly hurt the economy of the country, one of the
world's 10 poorest which lives off aid and tourism.

It has also forced tens of thousands of people to flee the
violence in the countryside and take refuge in the cities or in
neighboring India.

Some Kathmandu residents hoped the talks would bring
lasting peace to the troubled nation, tucked in the mountains
between Asian giants India and China.

"I pray that the talks are successful," said Tara Achhami,
a 30-year-old laborer at a construction site not far from the
prime minister's house.

"Many mothers have shed tears and many children have become
orphans. That should end now," she said.

Others were not as optimistic and said the talks would take
long to succeed.

"I don't think both sides are sincere," said Shyam Sundar
Shreshta, 31, a private company executive.

"The parties are fighting for their posts while the rebels
are putting up a list of demands," he said.