Nepal PM removes army chief despite walkout

Nepal's government has fired its army chief following a long simmering row over the reintegration of former rebel fighters, plunging the country into political uncertainty and creating fresh problems for its hesitant peace process.

The government said Rookmangud Katawal had been removed by Prime Minister Prachanda following a special meeting of the cabinet because he had repeatedly defied instructions to put a halt to military recruitment. “The army chief was removed because he failed to give satisfactory explanation on why the government orders were ignored,” said information minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara. Mr Katawal is also accused of boycotting Nepal’s national games last month and allowing eight fired army generals, whose tenures were not extended by the government, to continue working.

In truth the firing was related to a bitter dispute between former Maoists rebels and senior army officers over the integration of guerilla fighters into the mainstream military. The Maoists, who head the ruling coalition, want to see the fighters retrained and allowed into the army while Mr Katawal – along with many senior officers – was stridently opposed to taking on “indoctrinated” cadres.

“A lot of things are now up in the air,” said Kunda Dixit, a veteran political analyst and editor of the Nepali Times. Chief among them, is whether the coalition will survive.

The second biggest grouping, the Communist UML (United Marxist Leninist), which holds 108 seats, said last night it was withdrawing its support after not being consulted over the army reshuffle. “The Maoists have failed to lead the government with our confidence,” the UML’s general secretary Ishwar Pokharel said. The smaller Sadbhavana Party followed suit, taking its three seats with it. That leaves the government with a slender majority in the 601-seat parliament.

Adding to the Maoist woes, hundreds of activists from the Nepali Congress opposition party took to the streets, burning tyres in downtown Kathmandu.

Some analysts believe the government – headed by Prime Minister Prachanda, the former rebel leader-turned mainstream politician – may have overplayed its hand. The president is supposedly the only person with the power to remove the army chief, but there is much uncertainty because a new constitution is still being written.

And last night Mr Katawal seemed to be limbering up for a fight, refusing to accept his dismissal and meeting other generals.

The undertaking to integrate the Maoist fighters and officers into the regular army was part of a 2006 ceasefire agreement that saw the rebels lay down their arms and paved the way for an election last April where Prachanda and his party emerged with the highest number of seats. An estimated 19,000 former rebels remain in 28 camps located around the country and overseen by the UN, whose mandate expires in July.

The 2006 ceasefire agreement that brought an end to a bitter 10-year civil war in which at least 13,000 people died, also involved an undertaking to abolish the country’s 239-year-old monarchy and to declare Nepal a republic.

Although most other parties were not pushing for such a constitutional move, the final monarch, King Gyanendra – catapulted onto the throne by a 2001 massacre in which his brother and eight other members of the royal family died – did little to help his cause. Considered arrogant and aloof, his popularity plunged even further in 2005 when he suspended parliament and seized power for himself, returning Nepal to a state of affairs not seen since 1990 when absolute rule was ended.

Prior to the formal scrapping of the monarchy last year, the military was formally known as the Royal Nepal Army and was controlled by the monarch. Following the declaration of republic status and the ousting of Gyanendra and other members of his family from the main palace, the prefix “royal” was removed both from the title of the army and from the national airline.

The Maoists say that the move against Mr Katawal, who had been due to retire in four months, was to establish “civilian supremacy” over the army.