Nepal claims it has killed 200 rebels with airstrikes

KATMANDU, Nepal -- Army helicopters killed more than 200 rebels in airstrikes in western Nepal, a government spokesman said Monday, amid the deadliest fighting since the communist insurgency began six years ago.

Officials say security forces have killed more than 560 rebels since Thursday -- a claim that could not be independently confirmed. Neither journalists nor human rights activists have access to the battle zones in remote districts of Rolpa and Pyuthan, 185 miles west of Katmandu.

The reported fighting came hours after Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba left for Washington, where he is to meet President Bush today to seek more aid to crush the rebels, who are fighting to oust the monarchy from this Himalayan kingdom.

The Bush administration recently asked Congress for $20 million in non-combat military aid for Nepal.

"In yesterday's operations, more than 200 Maoists were killed," said the prime minister's spokesman, Achhyut Wagle. The rebels are inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong.

Security forces claimed to have killed more than 360 guerrillas in gunbattles since Thursday, before the air attacks began Sunday night, and acknowledged losing three soldiers and one police officer.

Body count uncertain

Defense Ministry spokesman Tana Gautam said only 108 bodies had been found since Thursday, adding that rebels often drag away or bury their dead.

"It is very difficult to give precise casualty figures," Wagle said. The government estimates are mostly based on circumstantial evidence found by soldiers, such as body parts "or signs of bloodstained bodies having been dragged away."

The casualty figures are "purely speculation," said Yubaraj Ghimire, editor of Nepal's largest selling newspaper group, Kantipur. "It depends on circumstantial evidence, like heavy firing from the army side and no response from the rebels, but I am not disputing the figures."