The government and Maoist rebels in Nepal signed a peace deal yesterday which could bring an end to a decade of civil war that has killed more than 13,000 people. The deal was agreed after 16 hours of negotiations and months of wrangling. Nepalis are now hopingthe civil war which brought their country to its knees may finally be over.
"Peace at last," read the headline on the front page of the English-language Himalayan Times. But there were still clouds on the horizon. In Kathmandu yesterday, hundreds took to the streets in angry protests against heavy-handed behaviour by the Maoists, who had ordered every household in the city to open its doors to Maoist fighters arriving from the countryside for a victory rally tomorrow.
Under the peace deal, the Maoists have agreed to put their weapons under UN supervision, and join an interim government until a new constitution can be drawn up next year.
King Gyanendra, who was forced to give up direct rule after massive protests by hundreds of thousands of people in April, will get to stay on the throne in a powerless, ceremonial role, until the new constitution is agreed. It was one more step towards power for Prachanda, the elusive Maoist leader who says he wants to transform himself from a guerrilla commander into a mainstream political leader. But many Nepalis remain concerned about precisely what Prachanda's intentions are, and how prepared he really is to abide by democracy.
Under the peace deal, the thousands of Maoist fighters under his command, who have spent the past 10 years oppressively ruling entire swaths of the country, will stay in 28 special camps, where their weapons will be monitored by the United Nations. But it remains to be seen how long they will be prepared to live in the camps.
The peace deal is the culmination of a process that began when the Maoists and an alliance of the seven main democratic political parties agreed to unite against the King at secret talks. Gyanendra sacked the government and seized back the powers of a medieval king in February last year.
But the seven parties and the Maoists seized on growing dissatisfaction with his rule and mounted months of street protests this year, finally bringing massive crowds onto the streets who defied a shoot-to-kill curfew for days on end until the King was forced to back down in April.
The peace talks have pitted Prachanda against the Prime Minister, G P Koirala, a veteran of Nepalese politics. Although they united to end the King's direct rule, the two men have been at loggerheads since then over his future.
Abolishing the monarchy has been the central tenet of the Maoists' 10-year campaign, but Mr Koirala and his Nepali Congress Party, the country's biggest political party, are determined to preserve it in some form.
Gyanendra, only months ago the absolute ruler of Nepal, has been forced to watch powerless from his palace as the two men argue over his future. Under yesterday's deal, he will stay in place until a constituent assembly is elected next year to draw up a new constitution. Both sides have agreed to abide by the assembly's decision on the monarchy.
The other major issue at talks was the disarmament of the Maoists, who have now agreed to subject their weapons to UN supervision.
But many Nepalis still fear the Maoists' real aim is still to seize power. Guerrillas have been mounting their own vigilante police patrols in Kathmandu during the peace talks, citing a supposed breakdown of law and order that no one else has seen any evidence of. And the protesters are incensed at orders from the Maoists for every house in the city to play host to 10 fighters coming from the country for tomorrow's rally.