In Nepal's foothills, the King's remit runs out and Maoists rule

OVER THE crest of the Himalayan foothills, 20 miles from Kathmandu, came an extraordinary sight. It was a wedding procession, clambering up the steep and muddy path over a mountain top.

The 17-year-old bride was wearing her wedding dress, in traditional Nepali red silk. She had been walking in it for five hours, over mountains and across valleys, and she had another three hours to go.

With her were her young husband, in a smart Western suit despite the strong winter sun, and bright Nepali cap, still wearing the wedding garlands. He was immaculate down to his tie-pin, and so were the rest of the party. A few musicians were along for the journey, and from time to time they gave a joyful burst on trumpet and clarinet, and a few beats of a drum. The bride - her name was Kalika - was looking a little weary and apprehensive, but the rest of the party was still celebrating.

It should have been a simple journey back from the wedding: a two-hour drive. But this is the front line in the Maoist insurgency that has brought Nepal to its knees. Yesterday in the capital, paramilitary police raided an underground political meeting and arrested a group of Nepalese Congress- Democratic party members. The state of emergency declared by the King continues, but here in the foothills, the Maoists are in charge.

It wasn't possible to drive because the Maoists had ordered a general strike. When the Maoists call a strike, no one dares drive. Even the buses do not run. Those who break the strike tend to end up dead. So the wedding party had to cross the front line on foot.

King Gyanendra may have sacked the government and seized absolute power for himself back in Kathmandu, but he is now absolute ruler over a very small and limited domain. His power stops here, on the front line that runs across the mountains - and it is only 20 miles from Kathmandu.

It takes half an hour to drive to Dhulikhel from the gate of Gyanendra's palace, and the front line is just a short hike into the mountains. Dhulikhel is a small town of traditional brick buildings, surrounded by breathtaking views of the Himalayas. It's a popular tourist spot, but it doesn't take long to see signs that all is not well.

The Nepalese army has commandeered the children's playground. Instead of slides and climbing frames, there are heavily sandbagged positions.

It's a hard climb up to the front line, but it's a climb that's on the tourist trail. At the viewpoint at the top of the mountain near by, the army has taken over a temple to the Hindu goddess Kali. In the only officially Hindu country in the world, the army is taking over temples.

It's a beautiful place, where ridge after ridge of mountains fade into the distant haze, and the paddy fields are cut in terraces on the steep sides of the valley.

But government control extends only as far as the edges of Dhulikhel town, say the locals. The countryside all around is Maoist territory, and you can hear the gun battles between the soldiers and the Maoists echoing across the valley at night.

"We are caught in the middle," said Ram Krishna Bazgayi, a farmer in Kabri Bazgay Dara village, down in the valley beyond the front line. "We are suffering from both sides, the government and the Maoists. The army come here and take the people to prison and interrogate them. We have nothing to do with the Maoists, but they take our people."

Mr Bazgayi has not been arrested and interrogated himself, but he says: "I heard from one guy who was taken from here by the army, he was beaten on the soles of his feet, and beaten on his knee and his private parts."

Human rights organisations have documented serious abuses by the Nepalese army.

"I believe there are some Maoists in the village but I haven't seen them," says Mr Bazgayi. "We are facing difficulties because we are in the middle. Suppose the Maoists call a strike and we do not obey it. We will be killed."

The Maoists are just as ruthless as the security forces in getting their way.

Mr Bazgayi can little afford days on strike. To feed and clothe his three children, he carries 22 litres of milk on his back five miles from here to the nearest town to sell it, every day, over the mountains.

In Kathmandu, the state of emergency under which the King has "suspended" such human rights as freedom of thought and freedom of speech is a major bone of contention. Out here, those rights have long been trampled underfoot by both sides. There are more immediate things to worry about, and Mr Bazgayi's main concern is whether the King can do anything to improve the situation here.

In his announcement that he was sacking the government, King Gyanendra claimed one of the reasons was that it had not done enough to bring about peace with the Maoists. For their part, the revolutionaries have long demanded direct talks with the King, but Western observers fear that may not be what Gyanendra has in mind.

Diplomats from Britain, the US and India have been trying to persuade the King that there is no military solution to the Maoist insurgency, and that he has to cut a deal with the Maoists. But some now fear the signs are that the King may be planning a new offensive against the Maoists - and nobody knows where that might lead. If the King fails, the risk is that the Maoists may end up able to dictate Nepal's future.

Meanwhile, a couple of German trekkers reached the little cafe next to the Kali temple taken over by the army, and sat down to admire the view over a beer. One of the strangest things about this insurgency is that it has been played out in front of the eyes of the tourists who still flock to Nepal. The Maoists have been punctilious about not harming Western tourists. A few have been fleeced for money, but that's the worst that's happened. And the army checkpoints all the way along the road from Kathmandu do not stop Westerners.

It's as if both the King and the Maoists know that the one thing Nepal's fragile economy cannot afford is to lose the tourists. All the high drama of the King's palace coup, and the Maoist insurgency, is being played out against the backdrop of one of the most breathtaking destinations in the world.

King Gyanendra profile, pages 40-41

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