Dawn-to-dusk curfew turns Kathmandu into ghost city

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The Independent Online

It was the latest desperate measure by King Gyanendra to stifle the growing protests against his autocratic rule. The curfew was ordered to prevent a mass demonstration against the King that was supposed to take place yesterday. Only last week, more than 100,000 people marched against the King in a provincial town in the south-east.

Far more were expected yesterday, but the crackdown was crushingly effective. A city of more than 700,000 people, and a major tourist destination, was brought to a complete standstill. In the huge central square where the rally was to take place, only police sat on the steps of temple buildings. Kathmandu's sights were empty.

The civil war that has crippled Nepal has just reignited. On 2 January the Maoist rebels who control huge areas of the country announced that a unilateral ceasefire they declared last year was over.

In the hours running up to the curfew, a wave of arrests took place across the capital. On Thursday, more than 100 political party activists and students were rounded up. In the pre-dawn hours yesterday, armed police surrounded the houses of five party leaders and told them they were under house arrest.

Britain and other countries swiftly condemned the clampdown. "I call on the King urgently to release those arrested, and to find ways to resume dialogue with the political parties," the Foreign Office minister Kim Howells said.

"These arrests and harassment of peaceful democratic forces is a violation of their civil and political rights," the US State Department said. "The United States calls on the King to release these activists." India said the King's moves were "regrettable and a matter of grave concern".

King Gyanendra seized the absolute powers of a mediaeval king last February, when he sacked the Prime Minister and the entire government, saying they had not done enough to defeat the Maoist insurgency. He declared a state of emergency and suspended basic human rights.

Although the state of emergency has since been lifted, basic rights remain suspended, and there is growing opposition to Gyanendra's rule. In a move reminiscent of the state of emergency, telephone lines and internet connections were cut in Kathmandu on Thursday. Some landlines and the internet were back yesterday, but the mobile network remained down.

The political parties Gyanendra forced from power are riding the wave of protest against him. They called for the mass demonstration that was stifled yesterday. The King's seizure of power has forced the democratic parties and the Maoists into an uncomfortable alliance of convenience. The Maoists made it clear they would not attack yesterday's rally and called on people to take part.

More than 12,000 people have died in Nepal since the Maoist insurgency began 10 years ago. Kathmandu and a few other cities are the only places in the country where the government is in full control. The human rights situation is dire. Nepal has one of the worst rates of disappearances in the world. The Maoists have killed those they suspect of collaborating with the government. The army has been equally ruthless, and last year the government began arming its own vigilantes to fight the Maoists in the villages. Last year the Maoists declared a four-month unilateral ceasefire. But three weeks ago they announced it was over, because the government had failed to match it. Since then, the violence has resumed, with 12 police killed in Maoist attacks in Kathmandu over the weekend.

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