Democracy protesters on the march as 27 are killed in Nepal

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The Independent Online

The country's main political parties defiantly announced three more days of demonstrations in the capital and called for a national strike on Thursday.

King Gyanendra faces growing opposition to his autocratic rule, and his refusal to back down threatens to drag Nepal into a new crisis. Despite a royal ban on demonstrations, the parties have vowed that they will continue to hold rallies until he agrees to give up the absolute power he seized last year.

The protests coincide with a resumption of the civil war that has killed 12,000 people in the past 10 years. The Maoist rebels who control vast areas of the country renounced a four-month unilateral ceasefire earlier this month, and have returned to their campaign of violence.

At least six members of the Nepalese security forces and 17 guerrillas, two civilians and a policeman were found dead after a gun battle that began with a rebel attack on an army patrol in the south of the country yesterday, the bloodiest day since the ceasefire ended on 2 January.

A candidate in next month's municipal elections was shot dead in another part of southern Nepal. Although the Maoists did not comment on Bijaya Lal Das' death, they have threatened to target anyone who takes part in the election.

The violence came a week after co-ordinated attacks by the Maoists inside the capital killed 12 police.

Opposition to the monarchy has been growing steadily since King Gyanendra sacked the prime minister and his government last February, seizing the absolute powers of a medieval king. He also used a state of emergency to suspend basic human rights, including freedom of speech and freedom of thought.

More than 100,000 people marched against his rule in a provincial town recently. In order to prevent an even bigger gathering in the capital last week, police arrested hundreds of party activists and imposed a dawn-to-dusk curfew in Kathmandu on Friday.

But thousands of protesters simply waited a day and came out on to the streets on Saturday. They fought running battles with police trying to enforce the ban on demonstrations. Police fired tear gas and baton-charged protesters near Kathmandu's ancient temples and chased them through the narrow streets of the old city. The demonstrators responded by throwing bricks and stones.

"We want democracy. Down with police repression. Autocracy will collapse," they chanted.

Hundreds were rounded up by police and taken away in trucks. The political parties said the national strike called for Thursday is in protest at their arrests.

The government claimed nearly 200 people were detained. But human rights groups say the real number was much higher. Nepal's National Human Rights Commission, which is known for its independence, estimated at least 300 were rounded up and taken away. A member of the commission, Sudip Pathak, said he had visited detention sites where the protesters were being held and had found them confined, 40 to a room, with no drinking water, poor food, and inadequate medical facilities.