Nepal leaders positive after talks to woo Maoists

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KATHMANDU, Sep 19 (Reuters) Nepal's ruling alliance said it had positive talks with the Maoists today as it tried to persuade the former rebels to rejoin the government and back a historic poll to decide the country's political future.

The negotiations came a day after the Maoists quit the interim government following refusal by other parties to establish a republic immediately, ahead of a November 22 vote to decide the future of the monarchy.

Their decision is seen as a setback to last year's peace deal which ended a decade-long civil war and brought the Maoists into the mainstream.

''We had positive talks and the meetings will continue,'' said Madhav Kumar Nepal, general-secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), the second biggest political party.

The ruling alliance was represented by leaders of seven political parties in the interim government, formed after King Gyanendra gave up absolute power last year, officials said.

''All top leaders of the eight political parties agreed that there is a need for unity among themselves to carry forward the peace process and democracy,'' said Peace and Reconstruction Minister Ram Chandra Poudel.

Maoist leaders were not immediately available for comment after the talks at the high-security official residence of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala.

The former guerrillas have vowed to launch nationwide street protests to disrupt polls 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.

PRETEXT? Analysts say this is just 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.

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

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

They 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 nominations.

The United Nations has 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 had 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 the 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.'' REUTERS SG HS1926

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