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Nepal capital's streets empty, troops patrol

By Staff
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KATHMANDU, Apr 20: Nepali police and troops patrolled deserted streets of the capital Kathmandu today as a curfew imposed to block a massive anti-monarchy protest went into effect.

All roads of the city of 1.5 million were empty of traffic, residents said. Police pickets had been set up at every major intersection and troops were on patrol, they said.

''I can't even see a dog on the street,'' said Manohar Acharya, a resident of the New Road business district.

Despite warnings that violators will be shot, activists have vowed to defy the curfew and bring hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets. But there were no signs of any protests early in the day.

''To protest peacefully is the fundamental and natural right of the people,'' said Krishna Prasad Sitaula, a senior leader of the Nepali Congress, the country's biggest political party.

''The ban and curfew orders are undemocratic and unconstitutional. We will disobey and will hold our peaceful protest programme.'' Unlike previous times when curfews were imposed, journalists too have been told to stay indoors. It came into effect at 2 a.m. (0145 hrs IST) and will last until 8 p.m.

''Residents are urged not to come out of their premises and security forces could shoot curfew violators,'' a government statement issued yesterday evening said.

At least eight people have been killed and hundreds wounded in police action against demonstrators since a seven-party alliance launched crippling protests against King Gyanendra 15 days ago to demand the restoration of multi-party democracy.

Tens of thousands have attended protests every day in Kathmandu, but many more have demonstrated in district towns. A general strike, part of the campaign, has prevented the movement of goods and people across the impoverished landlocked nation.

The parties have called for mass rallies today and have predicted hundreds of thousands will attend.

The latest deaths came in the town of Chandragadi, 600 km east of Kathmandu, where security forces opened fire on protesters yesterday, killing two people. Witnesses said dozens of others were wounded and more might have died.

GESTURE

The government freed two of the top political prisoners in the country on Wednesday, but there was no other sign the king was considering meeting any of the demands of the alliance. One of them, Madhav Kumar Nepal of the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), immediately called for continuing the campaign.

''The movement will continue in an effective and forceful manner,'' Nepal said. ''We will continue until full sovereignty is returned to the people.'' Analysts said the king needed to do more than freeing political prisoners.

''This is too little too late,'' said Lok Raj Baral, executive chairman of the Nepal Centre for Contemporary Studies, a private think tank.

''The arrests and release of political leaders are not significant. How the demands put up by the opposition are fulfilled will determine the course of events.'' Gyanendra sacked the government and assumed full power in February 2005, vowing to crush a decade-old Maoist revolt in which more than 13,000 people have died.

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

India, which shares a long, porous border with Nepal, is leading international pressure on the king to restore democracy.

A special envoy and India's foreign secretary, the country's top diplomat, were scheduled to call on the king today.

REUTERS

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