Nepal: The battle for the roof of the world

After weeks of demonstrations, violence is escalating in the troubled mountain kingdom as protesters - rejecting the King's offer of democracy - are shot down in the streets
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Outside the national stadium, a mother ran between the armoured personnel carriers and machine guns of the army clutching her injured son, desperately searching for an ambulance.

The sound of gunfire rang out behind her. Two people sprinted through a soldiers' cordon carrying an unconscious young man with blood streaming from his head. This is Nepal. A country made famous by its place on the hippie trail and known for giving thousands of visiting trekkers a friendly welcome every year, is in chaos.

Violence spilled onto the streets of the capital Kathmandu again yesterday as more than 100,000 protesters rejected the King's offer to restore democracy and attempted to march on the royal palace.

As unarmed protesters neared the palace, police and soldiers opened fire and used teargas on them. Dozens of people were injured in the gunfire and an ensuing stampede.

On Friday night King Gyanendra had promised to restore power to the people of Nepal. Yesterday police were shooting Nepalese children in the streets.

In a last-minute attempt to quell the protests against his rule, Gyanendra's offer was to to hold elections and revert to being a constitutional monarchy. Yesterday the Nepali people gave him their answer. "Gyanendra leave the country," they chanted. Several of the protesters carried an effigy of the King's corpse in a mock funeral procession.

Police tried to stop the protesters as they marched along the ring road but were powerless against their sheer numbers, and their line disintegrated when the crowd surged through. As the huge column advanced towards the palace, it was joyful.

But as they entered the city centre soldiers suddenly opened fire towards the peaceful protesters unprovoked. Doctors at Kathmandu's Model Hospital later said they had admitted patients with bullet wounds, including two children.

"The bastards shot at children," said Bharat Sharma, a volunteer with the makeshift ambulance service that is operating in great danger under the curfew. "If the King thinks he can control us with bullets he'd better forget it. This is the 21st century and a king is a rarity, something that belongs in a zoo." As the rally broke up and many of the protesters fled, the atmosphere in the city centre took a turn for the worse. Angry young men roamed the streets, smashing anything that bore Gyanendra's name. "Maybe tomorrow we will come with guns against the police and the soldiers," said one. "We don't want a monarchy any more, we want a republic."

"It started very peacefully and we just joined the back of a very long procession," said Ian Chalmers, a tourist from Hertfordshire. "Suddenly teargas shells rained in." He said he had not heard gunshots in the commotion but later saw two people slumped on the street, either wounded or overcome by gas.

The unrest came after two weeks of angry demonstrations and conflict across the country - much of which is controlled by Maoist insurgents.

It was their decade-old revolt - a struggle that has claimed more than 13,000 lives - that the King was aiming to crush in February 2005 when he sacked the the government and assumed full political powers.

But this dissolution of democracy, which brought a system of limited constitutional monarchy to an end, merely served to exacerbate tensions with the population at large. Strikes and blockades by Maoists have frustrated those in the towns and cities further.

The insurgency's heartland is seen as being in the remote western parts of the mountain kingdom, but in recent years their influence has spread and parts of the Kathmandu valley have even fallen to them. And while towns such as Pokhara - well known to Western backpackers - remain nominally under government control, rebel influence has spread in urban areas.

Neighbouring giant India - which itself must deal with Maoist guerillas in some of its northern states - has been unnerved by the rebel advance. Keen to defuse the current situation in a way that does not give encouragement or greater control to the Maoists, the Indian government sent an envoy to urge King Gyanendra to give way to demands for democracy.

A seven-party alliance has been agitating for an end to autocracy since early April. In all, at least 12 people have been killed and hundreds wounded in police action against protesters since then. But yesterday they seemed reluctant to give way to his offer - which remained unclear over how quickly power would be ceded and exactly what controls would be relinquished. Quite simply, they don't trust him.

For years they have seen their King operate in the most mysterious of dictatorial ways. He came to power following a palace massacre in 2001, that saw the Crown Prince gun down most of the royal family apparently in a moment of inebriated madness before shooting himself. There were plenty of rival theories doing the rounds in the shadows of Kathmandu's historic temples, but the drunken-rage line became the accepted history.

Since he took full monarchic power last year, the Nepalese forces have lost ground to the Maoists. They, meanwhile, have been able to enmesh themselves with other opposition groups. The King, for his part, has lost what sympathy he had in the outside world. Britain and the United States once backed him. They say little now.

But many foreigners remain in the country. There are thought to be hundreds of Britons who have continued travelling there through this troubled period in its history. Many are on trekking expeditions and away from the worst of the violence, but could encounter difficulty if trying to leave. The airport remains open, but curfews and violence make Kathmandu a difficult city to travel through. Others are holed up in the city's many hotels and guest houses.

Many travellers are returning visitors who have formed a strong bond with the Nepalese. Their feelings were last night summed up by Doug Scott, the first Briton to conquer the summit of Everest, who founded the charity Community Action Nepal to help villagers in the poorer middle hills. "Our groups out there have met with nothing but courtesy," he said yesterday. "It says a lot about the Nepalese that despite the awful times they've had, they've shown such mindful hospitality to visitors. We must not desert them now."


Population: 28.3 million.

Home to seven world heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley.

Lifestyle: One of the poorest countries in the world, a third of Nepalis live below the poverty line.

Geography: Home to eight of the 10 highest peaks in the world, including the 8,848m Mount Everest.

History: In the 1990s it was declared the only constitutional Hindu state; hasmix of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs.