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Restive Nepal braces for rebel blockade

Written by: Staff

KATHMANDU, Mar 12 (Reuters) Nepal's Maoist rebels plan to blockade Kathmandu and other major towns and cities from Tuesday, stepping up pressure on King Gyanendra who seized absolute power a year ago.

The guerrillas, intent on setting up a communist state in place of the centuries-old Hindu monarchy, vowed to close roads to the capital indefinitely, stopping movement of people and goods to the city of more than 1.5 million.

In the past, they have blockaded Kathmandu for several days, successfully cutting it off.

But the royalist government expects no major problem.

''We are prepared for it,'' said junior information minister Shris Shumsher Rana. ''We have adequate stocks and we will keep our lifelines open.'' Officials said Kathmandu had enough foodgrains for two months and enough petrol, kerosene and diesel for two weeks.

''They have tried this previously and failed and will fail again,'' Rana said. ''We have not had any shortage.'' But residents were not convinced.

''I can't take a chance,'' said Kathmandu housewife Durga Risal, 55. ''I have already stocked essential goods for one month. There may be scarcity of food.'' Analysts and diplomats fear the protracted political crisis and Maoist revolt could turn desperately poor Nepal into a dangerous zone of instability and a haven for international terrorist groups.

The Maoists rely mainly on fear and intimidation to impose their blockades, but have also set up roadblocks and attacked vehicles in the past.

Nepal's seven main political parties, who have a loose alliance with the Maoists, have urged the rebels to call off the blockade, saying it would hurt ordinary people.

CRACKDOWN The parties, who say the deal with the guerrillas was aimed at bringing them into the mainstream, fear the blockade would also give the government an excuse to crack down on an anti-king rally they have planned for April, expected to draw thousands.

''Naturally, the blockade will be a setback because it will adversely affect our peaceful protests,'' said Ram Sharan Mahat, a leader of the Nepali Congress party, the biggest of the seven.

The Maoists also plan to blockade district capitals and major towns across the Himalayan nation from Tuesday, and follow it up with a nationwide strike in April to try to bring down the king.

Nepal has been in turmoil since Gyanendra, officially a constitutional monarch, first used his emergency powers to sack an elected government in 2002.

In February last year, he seized executive power, sacking the appointed government, suspending some civil liberties and detaining political leaders. He said he had been forced to do so in order to end the decade-old Maoist revolt that has killed more than 13,000 people.

Nepal's key donors including the United States, Britain and influential neighbour India have urged the monarch to restore democracy and reach out to the parties.


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