Maoist rebels strike back at Nepal's army

Officials fear `big loss' in guerrilla counterattack on post in remote village


NEW DELHI, India - The warfare between the Royal Nepal Army and Maoist guerrillas has intensified over the past week in the heartland of Maoist-controlled western Nepal, an isolated, mountainous region where battles are being fought many hours' hike from the nearest road.

Four days after Nepal's security forces struck a major Maoist base hidden deep in the forest, hundreds of rebels began a devastating counterattack late Tuesday night on an army and police post in a remote village called Gam, Nepalese military officials said yesterday.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who has been in Washington seeking military assistance, said yesterday after meeting with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that the administration's proposed $20 million was not enough. "I didn't ask for more," he said, "but I am hopeful they will increase the amount next year."

The United States also plans to almost double development aid to Nepal, to $38 million in 2003 from $21 million in 2001.

The death toll from the Maoists' six-year insurgency is thought to be nearing 4,000.

Nepal's Defense Ministry asserted in a news release that more than 350 Maoists were killed Friday by security forces near a Maoist base in the western Rolpa district.

But in an interview yesterday, an army official said that report was in error. Fewer than 100 Maoists died, he said, and only 20 to 30 of their bodies were found.

The Maoists struck back in Gam, which the government had retaken last month after four or five years of Maoist control.

There are no phones in Gam or roads that lead there. An hour after the Maoist attack began at 11 p.m. Tuesday, the village was cut off when officers could not raise the wireless radio operator at the post.

An army spokesman said it was assumed that after soldiers ran out of ammunition in Gam, Maoists overran the post and killed all the security forces there. But he also said the army had not yet reached the village to investigate.

Officials gave varying estimates of the number of men at the post; some said 90, others 120.

"We fear this is a big loss for our side," one officer said.

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