Maoists tighten grip on Kathmandu with bombs and blockade

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The Independent Online

Maoist guerillas are suspected of shooting a police guard at a Kathmandu tax office yesterday then detonating two bombs as 500 people were queueing to pay property duties. The policeman suffered critical head and chest wounds, but the rest scrambled to safety with no serious injuries.

Maoist guerillas are suspected of shooting a police guard at a Kathmandu tax office yesterday then detonating two bombs as 500 people were queueing to pay property duties. The policeman suffered critical head and chest wounds, but the rest scrambled to safety with no serious injuries.

The Nepalese are bracing for the fourth day of a rebel siege as Maoists take their fight against the monarchy into the heart of the capital. The People's Army has called for an indefinite general strike in Kathmandu until the government frees their jailed comrades, and investigates the alleged execution of leftist activists.

Surface links to the rest of the Himalayan country remained in effect cut. Most businesses were shuttered, but flights were unaffected. Military escorts protected passenger buses that defied the rebel travel ban. But only about a quarter of the traffic which normally chokes the Kathmandu valley with smog was on the streets.

Since Nepal has no railway, the rebels know road links are crucial. Groceries and fuel for 10 million people must be sent by lorry into Kathmandu, its supplies of fresh produce are dwindling, and there are fears of hoarding and profiteering. Merchants started rationing gas canisters. Officials said they had enough rice and staples to last a month.

The Maoists have set fire to vehicles and planted mines to enforce their blockades, and early this week they threw four bombs at a luxury hotel for flouting an order to close. It shut its doors, as did other threatened businesses.

The city's mood is muted, but on edge. The People's Army, emboldened since government peace talks broke down a year ago, is a spectral menace. No rebels manned checkpoints, but threats to chop off the hands of drivers who dared touch a steering wheel reduced traffic

After yesterday's blasts, several taxi drivers said they would reconsider the risks of driving passengers on the highway. "We could easily be the next victims," one said.

Businessmen now call for a rebel ceasefire and a dialogue. The Deputy Prime Minister, Bharat Mohan Adhikary, urged the Maoists to negotiate an end to a revolt that has sent the economy of this landlocked Third World country into a tailspin. "We have urged businesses and the public not to bow to rebel threats and assured them security," Mr Adhikary said "We are ready to talk to [the rebels] without any condition."

Thousands of Communist cadres from Nepal's impoverished west have adapted the grisly tactics of Peru's Shining Path rebelswith deadly success in the Himalayas. More than 9,600 people have died since their uprising began in 1996.

Now Nepal's Maoist rebel forces, beefed up by rural militias they forcibly conscript, are reckoned to number between 10,000 and 15,000. They have vowed to fight until a Communist republic replaces the world's only Hindu monarchy. At least 40 per cent of country is under rebel control. In just eight years, the Maoists have evolved from a small group of insurgents with knives and homemade shotguns to a formidable fighting force. Booby traps, "pressure-cooker" bombs, remote-controlled devices and rocket-propelled grenades are their weapons of choice. Much of the western countryside is mined.

Washington has described the Maoist insurgents as terrorists, although grave human rights violations have been reported on both sides. The US gave Nepal military aid and weaponry worth $22m (£12m). Britain contributed $40m.

Nepal's five major political parties agree on one thing: they abhor King Gyanendra's dismissal of the elected government in October 2002. Since the Crown Prince massacred the royal family three years ago and died from wounds the next day, Nepal's ruling class has been squabbling over how to deal with the insurgency.

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