Al-Qa'ida arms link to rebels in Nepal

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Western intelligence agencies suspect that al-Qa'ida is implicated in supplies of sophisticated weaponry reaching Maoist insurgents in Nepal, where six years of fighting have claimed more than 4,000 lives.

The rebels' connections to the conflict in Afghanistan and the wider war against terrorism will be raised in London tomorrow, when the Nepalese Prime Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, meets Tony Blair. Mr Deuba is coming from Washington DC, where the Bush administration has promised the embattled Himalayan kingdom a $20m (£13.6m) assistance package, including military helicopters and other armaments.

While the long friendship between Britain and Nepal will be stressed, Mr Deuba is also expected to cite evidence that gun-running from Afghanistan is worsening the bloodshed in his country as he seeks increased military and development assistance from the UK.

Since Nepal's elected government requested the constitutional monarch, King Gyanendra, to declare a state of emergency last November and authorise the use of the regular army against the Maoists, the conflict has intensified alarmingly. Recent operations by the Royal Nepal Army in former Maoist strongholds in western Nepal have resulted in more than 600 casualties.

The Nepalese government has declared the Maoists, who claim to be inspired by Peru's Shining Path guerrilla movement, to be "terrorists". Similar language, equating the Maoist insurgency with terrorism, has been used by the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and other members of the Bush administration.

Recent offers by the Maoist leadership to declare a ceasefire have been rejected by the Prime Minister as "insincere". He has demanded that the Maoists surrender their weapons and apologise to the Nepalese people.

The rebels have previously procured weapons through the international black market, from sympathetic armed revolutionary groups in India, and by capturing rifles and ammunition when they have overrun Nepalese police outposts and army barracks.

The entry of Afghan gun-runners into this supply chain would be a worrying development, especially if the source can be traced to former al-Qa'ida and Taliban elements suspected of having taken refuge in the tribal territories of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. While there is little common ground between the conservative Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban and the Maoists' revolutionary ideology, both groups have identified US-led "imperialism" as the common enemy.

Potential Western donors, including Britain, will be seeking assurances that the government is taking meaningful action against endemic official corruption and inefficiency. A Nepalese army general admitted last week that even with more advanced weapons, it could take a decade or more to extinguish the Maoist threat.