Nepal gov't tells Maoists to negotiate or risk "alternate steps"

02-03-2005, 13h51

Nepal's new government told Maoist rebels to hold peace talks or risk "alternate steps" and imposed a ban on any criticism of King Gyanendra's seizure of power.

The government's bid for talks came as it warned on the front-page of the state-run Nepali-language daily Gorkhapatra that any "writing or opposition to the royal proclamation ... has been prohibited for six months."

Nepal's journalist federation swiftly defied the ban, branding Gyanendra's sacking of the government and its replacement with a 10-man loyalist cabinet a "coup against democracy".

Tuesday's move had "destroyed all the remaining structures of democracy," the Federation of Nepalese Journalists said, adding its voice to global condemnation of Gyanendra's actions.

Its statement was hand-delivered to news agencies as telephone, mobile links and the Internet remained cut for a third day in a step seen aimed at stifling dissent following the imposition of emergency rule. Censors were in place in domestic television and newspaper newsrooms vetting reports.

Scores of political leaders, party and union leaders were under arrest.

Gyanendra fired the government for failing to organise elections and failing to quell the insurgency by Maoists, who want to topple the monarchy and install a communist republic.

A rebel strike call went largely unheeded. Early in the day, some shops were shut but they had reopened by midday and traffic jammed streets.

"Before, because of fear, people weren't driving and shops were closed. Today, people are driving -- I took my motorbike," said a 31-year-old Kathmandu resident.

Previous rebel strike calls have been observed as much out of fear of retribution as out of support for Maoist aims, analysts say. Also, with communication links down and censorship, the strike call could only be passed by word of mouth.

New home (interior) minister, Dan Bahadur Shahi, called on the Maoists "to come to the negotiation table and help to solve the present political crisis.

"If the Maoists do not come forward, we may have to think of alternate steps," he added on state television.

He did not say what action the government might take against the rebels, who have been battling for nine years in a conflict that has taken 11,000 lives.

The Maoists had refused to hold talks with the previous government led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, arguing that because it had been appointed by the king rather than elected, only the monarch wielded executive power.

The home minister said the rebels should now be able to come to the negotiating table, "since the present government is constituted under the chairmanship of King Gyanendra and the government represents the king who holds sovereign authority."

There was no immediate rebel response. But after the king's seizure of power, Maoist leader Prachanda denounced him as a "national betrayer."

The rebels have been demanding elections for a constituent assembly that would draft a new constitution. Two sets of previous peace talks have collapsed over the monarch's future role.

The monarch, vaulted to the throne four years ago by a palace massacre that wiped out most of the royal family, has pledged to "restore democracy and law and order in the country in the next three years."

In the meantime political activity had gone underground.

"We're contacting people one by one but no one feels safe," said one student at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan University.

"We can only see state media, we have no information on our country, it's like we're in darkness," said another student.

Others welcomed the king's move. Around 200 to 300 people staged a pro-king rally in the ancient capital's core.

"Though we've lost our fundamental rights we can sacrifice them for the sake of peace. I like democracy and peace, but in this context I prefer peace to democracy," said 21-year-old Mahendra Maharjan.