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Nepal protests intensify, spread to tourist quarter

Written by: Staff
|

KATHMANDU, Apr 16 (Reuters) Nepal's police fought thousands of protesters with teargas and rubber bullets today as an anti-monarchy campaign widened dramatically into the tourist heartland of the capital.

An alliance of seven political parties leading the campaign against King Gyanendra called on citizens to stop paying taxes and asked the police and army to join the protests.

Several people were injured and dozens were arrested in the clashes that left the streets of Kathmandu strewn with stones and burning rubber tyres.

''We will burn the crown and run the country,'' youths shouted, dancing around a bonfire of tyres in the Thamel tourist district in the heart of the city. ''Death to the government.'' Thamel is a maze of alleys in the centre of the capital full of backpacker hotels, bars, curio shops and trekking and travel agencies that is a magnet for tourists entering Nepal.

Many vehicles were off the streets of Kathmandu on the 11th day of a general strike called by political parties demanding restoration of democracy, and thousands walked to work. Sunday is a working day in Nepal.

In the city's Balakhu district, protesters battled police with stones, as police lobbed teargas shells and fired several rounds of rubber bullets to scatter the activists.

King Gyanendra sacked the government and assumed full power in February 2005. The seven-party political alliance, which has been opposing him since then, launched a general strike on April 6, bringing the nation to a standstill.

Today, the parties upped the stakes.

''We ask taxpayers not to pay any tax to the government, civil servants to disobey orders and security forces to take off their uniforms and join the people,'' said Krishna Prasad Sitaula of the Nepali Congress, the country's biggest political party.

A statement issued by the alliance asked international donors to stop sending funds to the royalist government, and called for a boycott of goods manufactured by companies in which the royal family has a stake.

It also said people should not pay bills to state utilities for water, electricity and telephones and that overseas workers should cease sending home remittances.

PROTESTS WIDEN In Narayanghat, a town 150 km south of Kathmandu, witnesses said tens of thousands of people held a peaceful protest, forced the closure of government offices and declared themselves part of a republican district. At least four people have been killed and hundreds wounded in police firing and baton charges on demonstrators in the past 11 days. But neither side looks likely to back down.

The king has offered to hold elections by April next year, but activists say he is not to be trusted and should immediately hand over power to an all-party government.

The unrest in Thamel, which many Nepalese consider a foreign enclave, was unusual. The district has usually been insulated from protests because of worries it would affect the tourist trade, a main source of the impoverished kingdom's earnings.

Local businessmen said they could no longer afford to ignore the campaign against the king.

''We thought democracy was for politicians, but we made a mistake,'' said Shiva Lamichhane, a trekking operator among the protesters. ''For sustainable business, we need democracy.'' Kathmandu was a favoured destination for the original hippy trailblazers of the 1960s, and remains the base for visitors trekking in the tranquil Himalayan mountains and its forested foothills or visiting the birthplace of Lord Buddha.

Those on expeditions to Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain, usually stay in the capital to stock up on equipment.

Most tourists in Thamel watched the protest bemused, and many took photographs.

''I am scared but also enjoying it,'' said Margot van Melle, from Ghent in Belgium, who was visiting for a trekking holiday.

''But compared to Europe this is very friendly.'' Amy Busteed, a visitor from Brisbane in Australia, said the protests appeared to be inevitable.

''It's something that has had to be done in the country for a very long time,'' she said. ''But it has obviously distracted from the shops being open and us travelling to further places.''

REUTERS

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