Nepal shuts down as Maoists target King

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Police in Nepal opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators with live ammunition yesterday for the first time in almost a year, wounding at least three, in the resort town of Pokhara, in the shadow of Annapurna.

The country was shut down in a national strike called by political parties to protest against the dictatorial King Gyanendra. The streets of Kathmandu were deserted. Protesters attacked vehicles. Visitors could venture out of hotels only in special buses with banners reading "Tourists only". The bazaars of Thamel were empty and the shutters closed on shops selling Tibetan devil masks and Tintin T-shirts.

The Foreign Office is advising against all but essential travel to Nepal, and tourists are fleeing as a showdown looms between the King and protesters demanding he restore democracy. "Thief, Gyanendra! Leave the country!" the demonstrators chanted as they marched in thousands through Kathmandu.

In an absolute monarchy, it was revolutionary. And their words were echoed at similar protests across the country. For the first time, people are talking openly here about replacing the monarchy with a republic. King Gyanendra is reacting with ever more violent measures to suppress protest. The demonstrators who have come out in daily rallies all week have been tear-gassed, doused with water cannons, beaten with batons and now shot at. But still they keep coming.

Police have waded into rallies, beating protesters indiscriminately. The international press corps now covering the rallies is wearing motorcycle helmets to avoid head injuries.

And it is all playing out against the backdrop of the civil war with the Maoist guerrillas who control vast areas of the countryside, a war which has already cost at least 12,000 lives and has just restarted after the Maoists abandoned a unilateral ceasefire. What started out as demonstrations demanding the King restore democracy and give up the autocratic powers he seized a year ago is fast developing into a movement against the monarchy.

Sanu Raja Shakya, a protester, said: "We don't want a monarchy. It's too heavy a burden. It's useless for the country. What room is there for a monarchy in the 21st century?"

The protesters have vowed to boycott municipal elections being held on 8 February, saying they are just a figleaf for the King to claim he is restoring democracy. Yesterday's strike was held in part to prevent candidates filing their papers.

The Maoists have threatened to target any candidate. They have already killed one, and so serious is the situation that the government is offering special life insurance to anyone brave enough to stand.

King Gyanendra came to power only after most of the royal family was killed in 2001 in a massacre blamed on the then Crown Prince, who is said to have shot most of his family in a drunken rage.

Last year, King Gyanendra sacked the government and seized back the absolute powers of a medieval king. He suspended the most basic human rights, including freedom of speech, claiming that it was necessary to defeat the Maoists. But one year on, he has failed to make headway against the Maoists. The street protests have pitted the King directly against an alliance of the seven democratic parties that he forced from power. They organise the rallies and they called yesterday's general strike.

Crucially, the party leaders have held face-to-face meetings with Prachanda, the elusive leader of the Maoists, who has been in hiding for many years.

They have negotiated the framework for a peace process, and the Maoists have signed a 12-point agreement that includes a commitment to multi-party democracy. The King has accused the parties of playing into the hands of the Maoists.

Madhav Kumar Nepal, a party leader who met the Maoist, said: "It's very difficult to say whether I trust Prachanda or not. But I want to start by giving him the benefit of the doubt.

"If the Maoists have made a commitment to democracy, to peaceful means, to human rights, shouldn't we give them the opportunity to fulfil it? If they don't keep their word, we will see their treachery." Mr Nepal, leader of the Communists, the second-biggest party, spoke by telephone. He is under house arrest and police prevented The Independent from meeting him.

Analysts say it was the talks between the Maoists and the parties that galvanised public opinion against the King. The party leaders promise to deliver peace, but the King insists there is a military solution.

"The tourists are not coming because of this situation," said Balaram Tamang, a shop-owner in Thamel. I want peace so we can do business. If the King could deliver peace I wouldn't mind living in an absolute monarchy, but he has not lived up to his promises."

The parties are demanding that the parliament be reopened, all-party discussions with the Maoists take place, and that the King act as a constitutional monarch.

"We have not yet come down in favour of a republic," Shobhakar Parajuli of the Congress Party, Nepal's biggest, said. "But if the King does not want to give the people their rights, naturally the people will say, 'Why should we have a monarchy?'."

In 1990, massive rallies culminated in a march on the royal palace, and the then king agreed to a constitutional monarchy, the first in Nepal's history.