Nepal government aims to woo Maoists back

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KATHMANDU, Sep 19 (Reuters) Nepal's ruling alliance began talks with the Maoists today to try to persuade the former rebels to rejoin the government and support a historic election to decide on the future of the monarchy.

The Maoists quit the government yesterday after the other political parties refused to establish a republic immediately, in a setback to last year's peace deal which ended a decade-long civil war and brought the Maoists into the mainstream.

They have also vowed to launch nationwide street protests to disrupt a November 22 election for a special assembly meant to draft a new constitution and decide the future of the monarchy.

Ironically that assembly had been one of the Maoists' key demands during their insurgency. Now they say King Gyanendra is trying to sabotage the election and they want the monarchy abolished without a vote.

Analysts say that is a pretext.

They say the Maoists fear they will perform badly in the elections and want to distance themselves from the government and delay the polls until they have a chance to rebuild their popularity among voters.

''We'll hold a fresh meeting with the Maoists and try to convince them to return to the interim government and go for the constituent assembly elections,'' Peace and Reconstruction Minister Ram Chandra Poudel told Reuters ahead of the talks.

Thousands of Maoist fighters have assembled in camps around the country under UN supervision and locked their weapons away, but Poudel said the former rebels could still create ''anarchy''.

''This is very serious,'' he said before the meeting began at the high-security official residence of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala.

''CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM'' Maoists remain in the interim parliament but have ruled out an early return to the cabinet.

''If they agree to declare a republic through the parliament there is no problem,'' senior Maoist leader Ananta said.

''But there is no possibility of our returning to the government immediately.'' The Maoists have vowed to launch protests throughout Nepal and have called for a three-day general strike from October 4 when the candidates for the elections are supposed to file their nominations.

The United Nations urged the former rebels to observe their commitments, keep their fighters in camps and not use them in political protests.

Visiting British Minister for International Development Shahid Malik, who met Koirala and Maoist second-in-command Baburam Bhattarai today, said both told him that they were ''committed to making the peace process work''.

''I am cautiously optimistic that over the coming days and weeks this will be possible,'' Malik told reporters.

The mood in the capital Kathmandu was nervous.

''There is fear in the minds of the people that violence may resume again,'' said Ratna Tuladhar, a 48-year-old shopkeeper.

But some analysts said fears were overblown.

''The peace process can be rescued and the Maoists are not going back to jungles,'' said Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times weekly.

''This is just a tactic to delay the election.'' Nepali daily Samacharpatra blamed the elderly and sick Koirala for failing to engage the Maoists in regular dialogue in the cabinet.

''There was no particular effort to solve the problem as a result of which the Maoists have returned to protest,'' it said.

REUTERS SG VC1712

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