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Nepali forces fire on protesters, killing 1

Sunday, April 9, 2006

KATMANDU, Nepal -- Nepali security forces fired on stone-throwing protesters Saturday, killing one person and wounding at least five as increasingly violent demonstrations against King Gyanendra spread across the Himalayan nation.

Protesters ransacked government buildings and attacked security forces in provincial cities, but a curfew and a threat by authorities to shoot anyone violating it spared the capital, Katmandu, further violence after two days of protests.

However, political parties pledged to renew demonstrations in the capital, raising fears of a deepening crisis as the clearly emboldened opposition pressed Nepal's embattled yet uncompromising king to restore democracy.

Saturday's violence came on the 16th anniversary of the introduction of democracy in Nepal, an experiment that Gyanendra abruptly ended last year when he reclaimed absolute power for the royal dynasty.

At the time, he said the move was needed to bring order to a chaotic and corrupt political scene and to end a communist insurgency that has killed nearly 13,000 people in the past decade.

Many Nepalis at first welcomed the king's move. But the insurgency since has worsened and the economy has faltered, fueling the discontent that has been on display in recent days as thousands of workers, professionals and business people have for the first time joined students and political activists at protests.

In the southern town of Bharatpur, a demonstration by more than 25,000 pro-democracy supporters erupted into riots Saturday. It was the largest protest since a four-day nationwide strike called by the opposition -- and backed by the rebels -- began Thursday.

The protesters set fire to at least a half-dozen government offices and forced riot police to retreat from the town's main square, an official said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Police fired bullets and tear gas to disperse the protesters, injuring three women, including two sisters, who were watching the melee, the official said.

In the resort town of Pokhara, Gangadhar Baral said he was among a group of protesters throwing stones at security forces when soldiers opened fire.

"One of my friends was killed instantly," Baral said at the hospital in Pokhara, about 125 miles west of Katmandu.

A doctor reached by phone at the city's Gandaki Hospital confirmed the death and injuries but declined to give his name because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Witnesses and Nepali media reported protests in dozens of other towns and cities, although there was no word of deaths or injuries.

In Katmandu, protesters hurled bricks, shouted slogans and clashed with police in scattered incidents before the curfew took effect. Once the curfew was imposed, people scurried home, leaving streets empty even of tourists, who were only permitted to travel to and from the airport.

In many parts of the city dotted with ancient Hindu temples and Buddhist shrines, the only sounds were the sirens of military vehicles, police cars and ambulances.

The curfew began at 10 a.m., and officials said later Saturday it would stay in effect through Sunday. They also repeated warnings on state television and radio that violators would be shot.

The curfew and threats prompted the opposition -- an alliance of seven political parties, nearly all of Nepal's major ones -- to put off a planned protest in Katmandu to Sunday. But with the extension of the curfew it appeared the rally would again be delayed.

"If the government imposes curfew on Sunday then we will hold it on Monday. But we will not give up," said Dip Kumar Upadhaya of the Nepali Congress Democratic party. He spoke before the curfew was extended.

The rally is intended to be the high point of the general strike, which is supposed to end Monday.

But the government's crackdown could prompt the opposition to keep organizing protests into next week, said Narayan Wagle, editor of the respected Kantipur newspaper.

"The government's decision to use force and impose restrictions has only angered the common people who are beginning to join the protests," he said. "This is only fueling the campaign by the political parties."

Apart from Saturday's shootings, the government has arrested more than 750 people since Wednesday. Police were seen Saturday detaining another 20 rights activists for defying the curfew.

The crackdown on the opposition has prompted condemnations from the United States, Japan, the European Union and neighboring India, all of which have been critical of the king's power grab.

For the first time, the parties' protest has the backing of the communist rebels, with whom they formed a loose alliance in December. The rebels had promised not to attack Katmandu during the strike, but have stepped up attacks elsewhere.


Associated Press reporter Neelesh Misra contributed to this report.


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