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Nepal's king cracks down ahead of strike, protests

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KATHMANDU, Apr 6 (Reuters) Nepal's royalist government detained dozens of activists and politicians and imposed an indefinite night curfew in Kathmandu to scuttle a general strike planned against King Gyanendra's seizure of power last year.

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

King Gyanendra's government has banned rallies in Kathmandu, the center of the campaign, and vowed to crush any protests, saying Maoist rebels would use them to infiltrate the capital.

It also imposed a night curfew in Kathmandu and the neighboring temple town of Lalitpur.

''The curfew has been imposed to maintain law and order and protect life as Maoist rebels are expected to create trouble,'' a Home (interior) Ministry official told Reuters.

In New York, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed concern about what he saw as a brewing confrontation, his chief spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters.

''While maintenance of law and order is the responsibility of the state, security considerations should not be the basis for denying citizens their right to peaceful protest -- a right for which virtually all avenues seem to be closing,'' he said.

Annan took note of the Maoists' recent announcement that they were suspending military activity in the Kathmandu valley and urged them ''to take further steps to fulfill the commitments they have publicly made,'' Dujarric added.

DOZENS DETAINED, HOMES RAIDED Dozens of lawyers, journalists and doctors were detained when they defied the ban and staged small protests.

Police also raided the homes of several political leaders and activists in a pre-dawn crackdown and detained many of them, but some were released later.

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 re-affirmed their commitment to a loose alliance struck last November that seeks to end the king's absolute rule.

The Maoists, who have fought since 1996 to establish a communist republic, had responded on Monday to an appeal by political parties by ordering a unilateral cease-fire 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.'' 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.

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 per cent 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.

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