Maoists call first ceasefire for five years in Nepal as Prime Minister offers talks

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The Independent Online

Nepal's Maoist rebels have called a temporary halt to their "People's War" in response to a promise of talks by the country's new Prime Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba. It is the first such let-up in hostilities since the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) went underground and began its insurgency in February 1996.

But in a brutal message to the new Prime Minister, the rebels launched a massive raid on an isolated police post on Sunday night, killing at least 17 policemen. The attack took place in the far-western district of Bajura which is where Mr Deuba comes from.

In another blow to the government's prestige, at a mass meeting of 10,000 local villagers on Sunday the Maoists declared "People's Government" in the north-eastern district of Dolakha. It was the 8th district in which they have made such declarations, but the first one on Kathmandu's doorstep, only four hours from the capital by car. It contains the town of Jiri, starting point of the Mount Everest trek, which is increasingly popular with adventure tourists.

The Maoists have yet to harm any foreign tourists and have said that they do not intend to do so. But they often "tax" foreign treks, and put pressure on shopkeepers on the trekking routes to stop selling alcohol and foreign products such as Coca-Cola. Merely by controlling such a strategic spot as Jiri, they throw a shadow on this impoverished country's vital tourist trade.

The selection of Mr Deuba as Prime Minister has, though, done something to lift the gloom that has hung over Nepal like smog on the Kathmandu valley since Crown Prince Dipendra massacred most of the royal family in a drunken rage on 1 June, before killing himself.

Mr Deuba, who belongs to the liberal wing of the ruling Nepali Congress Party, has been Prime Minister once before, heading a shaky coalition for 18 months between 1995 and 1997. Soon after the Maoist insurgency first flared he tried to get negotiations going, but his government fell before the effort could bear fruit.

The Maoist insurgency has cost about 1,700 lives since 1996. The startling success of the Maoists' message is a reflection of the degree to which successive governments have failed to do anything to tackle the grinding poverty in the countryside, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid that pour into Nepal every year.

Amid the dramatic splendour of these enormous, thinly populated hills and valleys, foot is the only means of locomotion, man (and woman) the beast of burden; electricity, telephone and piped water or sewage just remote dreams.

The state education system is pathetic: in the huge district of Solukhumbu, adjoining Dolakha, The Kathmandu Post reported yesterday that a grand total of five students passed their School Leaving Certificate exams this year.

With his talk of peace, Mr Deuba has gained a breathing space. But out in the countryside there is a war for hearts and minds going on, and the Maoists are winning it.