July 11, 2006

Nepal Maoists disclose fighter strength: 36,000

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal's Maoists have revealed for the
first time how many soldiers they have -- 36,000 -- in remarks
published on Tuesday, a week after Kathmandu invited the United
Nations to monitor arms of insurgents and the state army.

"We are about 36,000 (fighters) in the People's Liberation
Army now," Bibidh (one name), a Maoist commander was quoted by
the Nepali daily, Kantipur, as saying.

"This keeps on changing at the time of fighting."

It was the first time the Maoists have disclosed the number
of their fighters since they began fighting against the
monarchy in 1996 in a conflict which has killed more than
13,000 people.

Nepali security officials have estimated rebel strength at
around 15,000 combatants versus a government army of 100,000
besides thousands of police.

The Maoists and the government, set up after King Gyanendra
handed power to political parties in April following mass
protests against his absolute rule, have been observing a
ceasefire for more than two months.

They are also holding peace talks aimed at ending the
insurgency and the Maoists are expected to join an interim
government in the Himalayan nation in the coming months.

Last week, the government wrote to the United Nations
asking it to monitor arms ahead of a planned election next year
for a special assembly to map out the country's political

This could entail the United Nations keeping the arms in a
safe place under supervision for an agreed-upon time.

A senior rebel leader told Reuters in an interview on
Monday the Maoists would never surrender their arms. But Bibidh
sounded more conciliatory.

"We will also have to inform the United Nations about the
arms and the number of our army later," he told the newspaper.

Nepal's independent television station, Image Channel, said
the Maoists had about 30,000 weapons, mainly seized from the
security forces.

Landlocked Nepal has no air force or navy but the army
operates several helicopters and small aircraft.