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Nepal protests spread to tourist quarter

Written by: Staff

KATHMANDU, Apr 16: Nepal's anti-monarchy protests spread to the usually off-limits tourist district in Kathmandu today, with hundreds of people chanting slogans against King Gyanendra and burning tyres on the street.

Police arrested four people during the protest in the Thamel district, a maze of alleys full of backpacker hotels, bars, curio shops and trekking and travel agencies which is a magnet for most tourists entering the country.

Protests were held elsewhere in the city as well, with vehicles off the street on the 11th day of a general strike called by political parties. Around 20 people were detained during a protest by journalists.

Since today is not a holiday in Nepal, many people could be seen walking to work down Kathmandu's main thoroughfares.

''We will burn the crown and run the country,'' youths shouted as they danced around burning tyres in the centre of Thamel. ''Death to the government.'' Thamel has usually been insulated from street protests in Nepal, because of worries it would affect the tourist trade, which makes up a large chunk of the impoverished nation's earnings.

Many visiting the kingdom trek in the Himalayan mountains, while those on expeditions to Mount Everest usually stay in the capital for some days to stock up on equipment.

Thamel is in the centre of the capital, and less than a km (a half-mile) from the Narayanhity Palace where King Gyanendra lives. No demonstrations are allowed anywhere in the vicinity, but police appeared loath to put down the protest, perhaps because of the hundreds of tourists watching.

Squads of riot police were out in force just outside Thamel, making sporadic forays into the district.

''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.'' Most tourists watched the protests bemused, with many taking photographs.

''I am scared but also enjoying it,'' said Margot van Melle, from Ghent in Belgium, who was visiting for a trekking holiday with a tour group. ''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.'' King Gyanendra sacked the government and assumed full power in February 2005. A seven-party political alliance, which has been opposing him since then, launched a general strike on April 6, bringing the nation to a standstill.

At least four people have been killed and hundreds wounded in police firing and baton charges on demonstrators. But neither side looks likely to back down from the confrontation.

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.


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