Tourist district littered with debris as Nepal protests grip the capital

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The Independent Online

Yesterday's pro-democracy rallies attracted some 50,000 people across the Himalayan kingdom and were the biggest since opponents of King Gyanendra's royal dictatorship began their campaign of protests and a nationwide strike that has cut off Nepal's cities for 11 days.

Among the demonstrations were small protests in the capital's tourist hub and its commercial heart - the first in the center of Katmandu, where rallies are banned.

Even with the opposition flexing it muscles, Gyanendra appeared unready to relinquish power over this mountain kingdom that has long attracted Western hippies in search of Eastern spirituality and mountain climbers looking to scale peaks like Mt. Everest.

Following Sunday's protests, his government extended the ban on demonstrations to the outskirts of Katmandu and the suburb of Lalitpur, where many rallies have been held.

In Katmandu, many of the capital's 1.5 million residents struggled to find everything from fresh vegetables to gasoline.

"I pushed my motorcycle all the way here. I have no choice but to wait for hours to get petrol," said Sundar Thapa as lined up at one of the few open gas stations. Customers were only being sold 300 rupees (US$4) worth of gasoline, enough for a few liters (gallons).

At most stations, signs read: "No petrol, no diesel."

The prices for what few vegetables could be found have risen fivefold since the start of the strike on April 6, and the prices of chicken and mutton have doubled.

"We have not had a single truck come in the past 11 days. Whatever we are selling was what we had in stock, or grown locally in Katmandu," said Raj Maharjan, a vegetable vendor at the city's Baneswor market.

Like most vendors, he had no green vegetables and was running low on potatoes and onions. Also scarce was water buffalo meat, popular with Hindu Nepalis who don't eat cows, which they consider sacred.

Gyanendra seized power in February 2005, saying he needed control to restore political order and end a communist insurgency that has killed nearly 13,000 people in the past decade. The rebels are backing the opposition campaign.

The protests are the worst since Gyanendra's power grab, and the opposition sought to up the pressure Sunday, appealing to Nepalis to stop paying taxes, custom duties, interest on loans from state banks and even for electricity, phone service and water from state-run utilities.

They also urged the estimated 1.6 million Nepalese working abroad to stop sending money home. The US$1.2 billion (¤1 billion) in remittances have in large part kept the economy afloat.

In Thamel - the city's ordinarily throbbing tourist hub - dozens of shop owners, hotel workers and trekking guides burned tires and taunted police along streets lined with shuttered stores that sell trinkets, traditional fabrics and pirated DVDs.

"The king is killing our work, we have not enough customers," said C.V. Shresthra, a 36-year-old trekking guide. Tourism, Nepal's second largest foreign exchange earner, has dropped from an estimated 500,000 visitors in 1999 to 275,000 in 2005.

Four people were arrested at the protest, which attracted dozens of curious backpackers, many of whom snapped photographs.

Later Sunday, traders around medieval Darbar Square, in central Katmandu, burned tires and in the city's heart, a neighborhood of Hindu temples and palaces.

But the day's biggest rallies took place in two neighborhoods on the outskirts of Katmandu. One attracted 15,000 people and was peaceful. Another, in the Balkhu neighborhood, degenerated into a running battle between protesters and police.

About 10,000 people had been marching along the ring road that skirts Katmandu for hours when riot police massed to stop them. The protesters then charged the officers, who responded with a volley of tear gas and rubber bullets that sent most of the people fleeing.

But a hardcore group, largely students, retreated onto the hills overlooking the road, hurling stones and shouting obscenities at police in a skirmish that stretched across terraced rice patties and lasted into the night.

"I'll find you and kill you in seven generations," one officer shouted after firing rubber bullets at a protesters about 20 meters away. The demonstrators responded with an obscene gesture and kept throwing rocks.

The opposition said 13 people were wounded by rubber bullets and that dozens of others were injured by baton-wielding police. About 30 people were arrested.

Thousands of people took part in at last half a dozen others protests in Katmandu, and protests in the cities of Pokhara and Bharatpur attracted about 10,000 people each, officials and Nepali media reported.

Police also arrested about 20 journalists who were protesting to demand press freedom and the release of about a dozen journalists detained in similar demonstration the day before.