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Nepal's royalist government detained dozens of activists

Written by: Staff

KATHMANDU, Apr 5: Nepal's royalist government detained dozens of activists and politicians in Kathmandu today in a crackdown ahead of a general strike and protests planned against King Gyanendra's seizure of power last year.

Nepal's seven main political parties have joined with Maoist insurgents to call for a four-day nationwide strike from tomorrow and a day of protest on Saturday, April 8, the day multi-party democracy was established 16 years ago in the Himalayan nation.

The government of King Gyanendra has banned rallies in Kathmandu, the centre of the campaign, and vowed to crush any protests, saying that it had evidence Maoist rebels would use the occasion to infiltrate the capital.

Witnesses said about two dozen lawyers, journalists and doctors were detained when they defied the ban and staged a small protest today morning.

Police also raided the homes of several political leaders and activists in a pre-dawn crackdown and detained many of them, party officials said.

''I have been handed over a detention order saying I am being detained for 90 days under the Public Security Act,'' Minendra Rijal, a senior member of the Nepali Congress (Democratic) party, told Reuters by telephone as he was pulled from bed and taken away by police.

Although anti-monarchy protests have become a regular feature in the country since the king's coup in February 2005, the latest rallies are expected to be the biggest so far.

The campaign has also gained weight as it comes after the political parties and Maoist rebels ironed out their differences and reaffirmed their commitment to a loose alliance struck last November that seeks to end the king's absolute rule.

On Monday the Maoists, who have fighting since 1996 to establish a communist republic, responded to an appeal by political parties by ordering a unilateral ceasefire in Kathmandu Valley. They have urged people to support the protests but said they would not attend themselves.

Political parties have vowed to defy the ban, and have urged schools, businesses and factories to close, and public transport and private cars to stay off the streets.

''The end of autocracy and the establishment of full-fledged democracy are our goals,'' said Girija Prasad Koirala, president of the biggest political party, Nepali Congress.

''We want peace and prosperity in Nepal. Our protest movement will not end until we achieve them.'' Many trade union and professional groups said they would join the strike, while schools and businesses are likely to close, either in support of the strike or for fear of attacks by activists.

LOOSE ALLIANCE Last November's unprecedented alliance between Maoist rebels and the country's seven main political parties has left King Gyanendra looking even more isolated, analysts say. Under the deal, struck after months of secret negotiations, the Maoists have promised to eventually rejoin the political mainstream.

Parties and rebels promised to work together to end what they call ''the autocratic monarchy'', without explaining how they would do so. But the two sides continue to have divergent visions on the political system they would like to see replace royal rule.

The rebels have a strong presence in the countryside where they run their own administrations. They enjoy some support among the rural poor, but also enforce their rule through fear and intimidation.

The revolt, which has claimed 13,000 lives since 1996, has scared away tourists as well as investors from the cash-strapped nation and undermined its aid dependent economy.

The Manila-based Asian Development Bank, a key aid donor, says economic growth slowed to 2.0 percent in the year ending July 2005, from 3.5 in the previous year and 4.8 in 2001.

King Gyanendra says he took over only after the parties failed to quell the revolt, and has refused to budge.

In February, he held municipal elections which were boycotted by the parties and opposed by the Maoists, and turnout was low. He has also laid out ''a roadmap for democracy'' under which national elections are expected to be held by April 2007.

But a recent opinion poll conducted by Himal, a popular magazine, showed 65 per cent of those surveyed did not approve of the king's direct rule. Many Nepalis are tired of the stalemate and want the king, the political parties and the Maoists to end their fighting and join together for peace.

''I don't think it can be resolved otherwise. The crisis is spreading like cancer,'' said 33-year-old taxi driver, Manjil Maharjan. ''I want nothing else but peace so that I can work and make a living without any trouble.''


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