Protesters killed as Nepal police shoot at crowd

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Nepalese police opened fire today as thousands of protesters marched toward the capital Kathmandu in defiance of a government-imposed curfew, killing at least three people and wounding dozens more.

Doctors at Model hospital in Kathmandu said two people had died and more than 40 were in critical condition, mostly with head injuries, after police fired rubber-bullets and live rounds at the crowd. Witnesses said they'd seen at least one other person killed.

The capital city had been poised for confrontation, with soldiers and police patrolling the streets as thousands of protesters from surrounding areas headed toward the city limits, where troops had orders to shoot on sight anyone breaking the curfew.

Demonstrators marched toward Kathmandu from several directions, and thousands protested just outside the curfew area in the suburb of Gangabu, watched by a line of police and soldiers.

District administration officers said the 2am-8pm curfew was necessary to prevent opposition parties from holding a huge rally today to demand that King Gyanendra loosen his grip on power.

Residents in parts of central Kathmandu came out onto their roofs, whistling and banging plates. People used mobile phones to call each other and send text messages, trying to draw each other out for demonstrations.

"We are ready to sacrifice our lives for the nation because we are about to be killed, but we are not concerned about that. It is for the nation and without the nation there is no life," said Sangam Poudel, a 22-year-old student.

Diplomats, journalists and human rights monitors were refused passes allowing them onto the streets as they had been in the past. Police tried to keep the media and rights workers away from any protests, escorting some foreign journalists back to their hotels.

A foreign diplomat said the restriction on passes was intended to keep observers - journalists, rights activists and diplomats - from seeing what was going on in the streets.

Still, opposition leaders met and decided to go ahead with the protest.

Krishna Sitaula of the Nepali Congress party said there would be rallies at Kathmandu's major entry points, where protesters would try to break through police lines.

About 5,000 protesters rallied in Kirtipur, just south-west of Kathmandu, this morning, local resident Arun Giri said. There is no curfew in the farming suburb.

Gyanendra, meanwhile, met with a special envoy sent by neighbouring India at the royal palace in the heart of Kathmandu, state-run Nepal television said. Karan Singh was in the palace for two hours, according to the report. Details of the meeting were not immediately available.

India, a burgeoning global power that does not want chaos on its doorstep, sent Singh to press the king to reach a compromise with the parties. The parties want a new constitution that would limit - or eliminate - the monarchy's role.

Before meeting the king, Singh met several opposition leaders.

Two weeks of often violent protests and a general strike against palace rule have paralysed the Himalayan kingdom, leaving cities short of food and fuel and Nepal at its most volatile since Gyanendra seized power 14 months ago.

The royal government has responded harshly, claiming that communist insurgents - now allied with the opposition - have infiltrated rallies to instigate violence. Police have beaten, tear gassed and arrested thousands of protesters.

Security forces have killed at least 13 people, including some pro-democracy protesters shot dead Wednesday, since the opposition launched a general strike on April 6.

Officials claimed security forces opened fire yesterday only after being shot at during an assault by brick-throwing protesters in Chandragadi, about 310 miles south-east of Kathmandu.

The government has made such claims in the past, but no shootings by protesters have been independently verified.

The region's chief administrator, Bhola Siwakoti, said the demonstrators had defied a ban on protests and were looting.

"The events show how desperate the present royal regime is. It is becoming paranoid," said Dhruba Adhikary of the independent Nepal Press Institute. "The movement is getting popular. It is expanding and growing."

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