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NEPAL: Maoist Rebels Flaunt Firepower

Marty Logan

KATHMANDU, Jan 15 2006 (IPS) - Boom! A young policeman in blue fatigues jumps as the bomb explodes, echoing in the narrow streets and alleys of the Charkhal quarter in Nepal’s capital. A colleague standing nearby laughs at his fear but none of the small group of police move from the shelter of the three-storey building onto the main street.

It is mid-afternoon and the road in front of them should be filled with honking motorbikes, cruising taxis and pedestrians, many hurrying to the nearby land registry office. But the street is silent save for the mechanical whirr of the army’s metre-high, khaki coloured, bomb-disposal vehicle that rolls slowly past after another successful mission.

“We got a call that there was a bomb here,” says another police officer, holding a walkie-talkie and waiting for the ‘all-clear’ signal.

“My house is just over there,” says a reporter, pointing. “Can I go?”

“We can’t let a foreigner go,” the policeman answers. “A Nepali yes, because Nepali lives aren’t worth much. Everyday, 20 or 25 of us die in the hills.”

Those hills appeared much closer, Sunday, after the previous day’s attacks by Maoist rebels on police posts in and around the heavily guarded Kathmandu Valley, which has been largely spared the blood-letting of a decade-old uprising that has left roughly 12,000 people dead.

The most shocking was an assault by dozens of rebels on the police post at Thankot, the major road entrance to the Valley, which is home to more than two million people and Nepal’s government and business hub. The Maoists, many of them reportedly arriving on a public bus, swarmed the post at shift change and just minutes after a power cut.

At least 10 police officers were slaughtered and the rebels grabbed guns and ammunition and sacked a nearby government office before fleeing into the hills chanting revolutionary slogans, reported the daily ‘Kathmandu Post’.

Another group of about 20 Maoists killed at least one police officer across the valley in Bhaktapur during another evening raid. Six officers and one civilian were wounded. Other bombs exploded at a number of municipal offices around Kathmandu and at the family house of Chief of Army Staff Pyar Jung Thapa.

The attackers hit just days after authorities vowed army and police in the capital would be on high alert 24 hours a day until municipal elections Feb. 8. While the Maoists had resumed killing and looting in their home base of west Nepal immediately after ending their ceasefire Jan. 3, the capital had been peaceful.

Saturday’s events seemed to signal: ‘we can do it in Kathmandu too’.

Soldiers managed to defuse Friday afternoon’s bomb but Saturday’s attacks were the capital’s worst since King Gyanendra fired his appointed prime minister and took power in a bloodless coup Feb. 1, 2005.

The monarch has refused to cancel the upcoming polls, which he promised last year seemingly to soothe many critics in the international community who have repeatedly urged him to return democracy. But today, the local elections have become the focal point of a power struggle between the monarch and a loosely-linked opposition.

An uneasy alliance of seven political parties that won 90 percent of votes in the last parliamentary election is actively boycotting the polls while the Maoists, who launched their armed struggle in Feb. 1996 to end monarchy and injustice against disadvantaged groups like women and Dalits (so-called untouchables) have pledged to disrupt them.

In 2005, the army estimated the rebels’ strength to be 6,000-7,000 hardcore fighters, 20,000-25,000 militia and about 100,000 sympathisers. They are said to control up to 80 percent of the countryside, where the majority of Nepalis live.

Before Saturday’s attacks, Local Government Minister Tanka Dhakal repeated the government’s stance that the polls must be held at any cost. “Do not worry about security and expenses. Adopt the method that can be effective in conducting the polls,” he told local appointees in the mid west’s capital Nepalgunj.

Hours earlier, rebels bombed government offices in Nepalgunj and a nearby town. Friday night security forces killed 16 rebels in Syangja district, between Nepalgunj and Kathmandu.

On Sunday, 15 police officers who went missing during the Maoist attacks were found safely. In a statement a rebel leader said the group released all the prisoners it captured Saturday.

He called the previous day’s assaults “the first successful rehearsal”, adding, “there will be more storms in the days ahead”.

Fear of the Maoists is so strong that four appointees in Palpa district bordering Syangja, have resigned. Across the country in eastern Ilam, no one has tendered their candidacy for the elections, a local governance expert told IPS.

In Biratnagar, south of Ilam, candidates asked the government Saturday, to give them life insurance in return for running. “The government will provide much more security than what the poll hopefuls are demanding,” State Minister for Population and Environment Mani Lama assured them, reported ‘The Himalayan Times’ daily.

Despite such unease, the ordinary people will vote, says one observer – because they are so poor they can be easily bought. Half of Nepal’s 25 million people, 80 percent of whom live in villages, survive on less than one dollar a day and “if they’re given five or 10 rupees (.07-.14 US dollars) they’ll go vote”, adds Yadab Kant Silwal, a former diplomat and secretary-general of the South Asia Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

Rebel numbers are too small to have a big impact on the vote, he adds. “How many areas can the Maoists cover? They might act against one or two people but they can’t stop many people from voting.”

King Gyanendra was far from Saturday’s blasts. Visiting the country’s east, he surprised villagers with an unannounced 90-minute stroll in their midst. “The municipal polls are near,” he told them, reported local media. “If you choose the right candidates, all the problems dogging rural and urban areas could be solved.”

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