Nepal's king bows to pressure and promises elections

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Nepal's King Gyanendra last night buckled under the pressure of a week of pro-democracy protests, bloody street battles and calls for his execution, and proposed general elections.

In a desperate attempt to defuse the Himalayan kingdom's escalating crisis, he demanded dialogue with opposition parties. But he gave no firm date for polling and did not appear to go beyond previous promises that have not been kept since he seized absolute power 14 months ago.

"It is our wish that in order to re-energise multi-party democracy, there should not be any delay in reactivating all representative bodies through elections," the monarch said in a message to the nation, broadcast on state television on the stroke of midnight at the start of the Hindu new year.

"May the efforts at ensuring sustainable peace and meaningful democracy in the interests of the nation and the people bear fruit during the new year."

He made no reference to the violence between demonstrators and security forces that have gripped the country for the past eight days. He also avoided mentioning Nepal's communist insurgency; the Maoist rebellion aiming to create a communist state has led to the deaths of 13,000 people in a decade.

An opposition leader instantly rebuffed the king's overtures, calling the statement "meaningless".

"It follows the same roadmap he had last year and he has not moved an inch from it," said Minendra Risal of the Nepali Congress Democratic Party.

There seemed little likelihood that the king's speech would lift the pressure on him. Sentiment in the country of 27 million people appears to be hardening following the brutal suppression of peaceful demonstration by Nepali police.

Thousands of Nepalis marched to chants of "Hang King Gyanendra!" pleading for police to come over to the side of the protesters. Hours before his television appearance, police fired rubber bullets at 500 lawyers protesting against royal rule in the capital, Kathmandu.

The lawyers were allowed to march just a few metres before police beat them with bamboo batons, launched tear gas and opened fire. Dozens of wounded were taken to Model Hospital. The Bar Association said that at least 70 had been arrested. Four people have been shot dead by security forces since the start of the demonstrations and hundreds have been injured.

At an opposition rally on the outskirts of Kathmandu, a banner hung over the stage reading "Long live the democratic republic of Nepal". "We're going to march to the palace," said a 23-year-old university student Gopal Chandra. "We're going to tear the palace down."