Protests heat up in Nepal

Demonstrators demand an end to monarchy

April 23, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KATMANDU, Nepal -- Neither curfew, tear gas nor King Gyanendra's offer to give up control of the state stemmed the fury of his subjects yesterday as, for the first time in 17 days of demonstrations, protesters broke through police lines to pierce the ancient heart of the city, reaching within blocks of Narayanhiti Palace.

Police officers pushed them back through the warren of narrow, sunless alleys, firing tear gas, whipping cane batons and infuriating the protesters even more. "Dogs!" they screamed, eyes red from the tear gas, as paramedics rushed in to pick up the injured.

A boy who looked no older than 15 lay bleeding from the head. A young woman stumbled blankly into an ambulance, blood streaming down the side of her face. The alley was strewn with hundreds of sandals lost as demonstrators tried to flee the police charge.

For the second day in a row, more than 100,000 protesters had flooded the streets.

Police officers, backed by the Royal Nepalese army, for the most part stood by and let a sea of protesters pass through what was, a day before, the heavily fortified Ring Road encircling the city center. The clampdown came when the throngs neared the palace.

By midafternoon, the coalition of Nepal's seven largest political parties, which began the demonstrations more than two weeks ago, had formally rejected the king's offer, made in a televised speech Friday night, to return control of the government to a prime minister of the parties' choosing.

"It has undermined the sentiments of the people," a statement by the alliance said of the king's offer.

The king addressed neither of the coalition's main demands: the restoration of the elected Parliament, suspended nearly four years ago, and a referendum to rewrite the constitution and allow Nepalese citizens to decide the future of the monarchy.

In rejecting the king's offer, the alliance - which is also under strong pressure from the protesters - rejected the urging of two of its most important backers, India and the United States.

Party leaders were literally corralled by the Nepali protesters yesterday morning. As they huddled inside the home of Girija Prasad Koirala, a former prime minister and head of the Nepali Congress Party, the country's largest political party, protesters jammed the lanes leading to the house with a message meant to both uplift and cow the leaders.

"Don't get weak in the knees!" they yelled. "Don't ditch the people!"

"We don't give a damn about anything else," another group of protesters shouted nearby. "We don't want the monarchy."

The protests that have paralyzed life in the capital, strewing its streets with bricks, broken bottles and burned tires, seem increasingly to be more a referendum on the reign of Gyanendra than simply a show of support for democratic rule.

Yesterday morning, a teacher named Bidur Gurung, 39, had fashioned an upside-down mock crown, made of tinfoil and broomsticks, and fixed it atop a bamboo pole. "Crown down," he declared giddily, surrounded by hundreds of demonstrators. "We don't need the crown."

India, the United States and the European Union have urged party leaders to accept the king's offer.

"We think it is the basis on which we can build and move forward," the British ambassador, Keith George Bloomfield, said after meeting with opposition leaders about midday, the Associated Press reported.

Pauli Mustonen, charge d'affaires for the Finnish Embassy, added, also according to the AP, "We have explained to them that this would lead to a process that could help end the violence and lead to the beginning of democracy."

On Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the king's invitation to the parties to choose a prime minister "extremely important."

The United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, also issued a cautious welcome. "It is up to the parties to work out the modalities for the transfer of power in a timely, orderly and responsible manner," he said in a statement.

However, protesters predicted yesterday that their leaders would suffer if they caved in to international pressure. "They have to listen to the people's message," said Rajendra Shalabh, 46, a television producer.

Ishwar Chhetri, 37, a tour operator, pointed out that citizens such as he were prepared to suffer the consequences of the protests for a solution to Nepal's crisis. Central to that, he said, was to address the Maoist rebellion that has bruised the country for a decade and left a death toll of 13,000. "They should be addressing the Maoist problem," he said of the political leaders.

The Maoists have vowed to let up their fight only in the event of a referendum on the constitution, which enshrines the monarchy and allows the king to control the military.

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