Nepal protests intensify, little violence
KATHMANDU, Apr 15: Thousands of people staged a pro-democracy protest in Kathmandu today, the largest turnout in Nepal's capital since the latest campaign against King Gyanendra was launched.
About 8,000 people gathered in the Kalanki suburb on the western outskirts of the city, chanting slogans as they sat cross-legged on the road.
''Down with autocracy, restore democracy,'' they shouted, waving red flags of protest as riot police watched. Onlookers in nearby shops and houses cheered.
At another place in the city, police charged with batons to break up a protest by local journalists and arrested at least a dozen people, witnesses said. Several journalists were hurt, they said.
Just hours earlier, one of the top leaders of the movement vowed to step up protests but said activists would remain peaceful and non-violent.
At least four people have been killed and hundreds wounded since an alliance of seven political parties launched a general strike 10 days ago, bringing the impoverished Himalayan kingdom to a standstill.
Amrit Kumar Bohra of the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), who is wanted by police, said anger against the king had mounted after his Nepali New Year message to the nation yesterday repeated previous promises and contained no new initiatives.
''We will further intensify our strike,'' he told Reuters at a hideout in the capital. ''We will make it more effective and more people will come out on the street. We are not afraid of the suppression and the repression.'' Asked what effect this could have on the people, he said: ''The general strike will cause some inconvenience to the people, but the royalist regime is causing bigger problems.
''Therefore let's bear trouble for some more time and establish peace and democracy and that will usher in prosperity for ever.'' Very little traffic was on the streets of Kathmandu today, but several shops were open. Crowds thronged to vegetable and fruit sellers in the city of about 1.5 million, stocking up for what could be a long drawn-out campaign.
''We are trying to make our protests more and more peaceful,'' said Gagan Thapa, a student activist on the street in Kalanki. ''We have to be careful because we are being infiltrated by government-sponsored vigilantes.'' Asked how long the campaign could last since both sides appear unlikely to back down, he said: ''This is the people's movement and history shows people never lose. We have the confidence we are going to win, but it may take time.'' Gyanendra, who sacked the government and seized absolute power 14 months ago, promised yesterday to hold elections by April 2007. But he has said so before, and has made no response to demands that he immediately allow a representative government to take charge and end the crackdown on political parties.
Nepal, the world's only Hindu kingdom, launched multi-party democracy only in 1990, after a sustained campaign against Gyanendra's predecessor and brother, King Birendra.
Gyanendra came to the throne in 2001 after then Crown Prince Dipendra shot dead nine royals including his parents in a drug and drink fuelled rage before turning the gun on himself.
In February 2005, the current king sacked the government, saying corruption was rampant, and that it had not been able to counter a spiralling Maoist rebellion.
At least 13,000 people have been killed since the Maoists launched an armed movement in 1996 against the monarchy. They have now formed a loose alliance with the political parties opposed to the king.