More Turmoil in Nepal

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MANISH SWARUP / AP

Pro-democracy protestors shout slogans within a mile of the royal Narayanhiti Palace in Katmandu, Nepal, Saturday, April 22, 2006.

It is 40 minutes past noon, and Kathmandu is, once again, under strict curfew orders. That means Madan Chaulagain, who is out on the streets, is already breaking a proclamation of his King, and he's now just about to make things worse. Chaulagain, 27, and a few of his friends have set a row of tires on fire in the middle of the road —just at the spot where a truck full of blue-uniformed Nepali police has driven up. Chaulagain uses a stick, and pushes one of the burning tires right up to where the cops are and lets it roll on to the ground. His friends cheer: so does the crowd behind them, which is at least a couple of thousand strong. "We've not been protesting for 17 days for a prime minister," Chaulagain says. "We've been protesting for democracy. Until we get democracy, we'll be out here." The police at first watch without a reaction; then, an hour later, they charge at Chaulagain and his fellow protestors with sticks and glass shields, driving the crowd to stampede back in a frenzy.

The 17-day-long standoff between Nepal's king and the street protestors demanding an end to his control over the government took a sharp turn for the worse today, after Nepal's political parties rejected the King's offer for peace — and the police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse thousands of protestors.

Hopes had been raised on Friday that the conflict might be at an end after the King went on TV to offer to hand over power to a prime minister chosen by the seven parties that have been spearheading the protests against him. However, the parties today rejected the King's offer, saying that it did not meet their basic demands, which include holding elections for a special parliament to write a new constitution for Nepal that would turn the King into a ceremonial figure.

At the same time, thousands of people defied curfew orders and marched through the streets of Kathmandu in the direction of the palace. Many of them said they had been incensed by the tone of the King's speech yesterday, which they called arrogant. "We don't want a constitutional king or a ceremonial king. We want him to leave the country; we want a republic," said Suwas Bhetwal, 24. Ahead of him, protestors were carrying a stuffed white shroud sprinkled with red drops. "That's the king's body," one of them shouted. "His dead body."

The protestors were in a more confrontational mood today. So were the authorities. Nepali police reacted brutally to such demonstrations, firing tear gas and rubber bullets in many places. While the numbers of casualties are hard to know at this stage, it is clear that many were wounded. Cell phones were jammed throughout the city to cut off communications. A long spell of rain in the afternoon helped the authorities by stopping the protests for a while, although large plumes of smoke continued to curl up into the Kathmandu skyline as protestors kept their fires burning. Then the rain ended, and the protestors came out again. This time the police seemed to have lost their patience.

Just outside the posh Hyatt hotel, Achyut Adhikari, a student, was gathered with a few hundred others after the rains in defiance of the curfew: when word spread that the police were firing rubber bullets — and that they have been firing at crowds throughout the city — Adhikari and the others turned and ran, tearing through bushes and gardens, jumping over walls, to make it to safety. "Of course I'll be back tomorrow," Adhikari said, at the end of it all, panting for breath. "What else is there to do? We'll keep coming until the King gives in to the people." A shout went out that the police were coming around through a back alley. Adhikari and his friends got ready to run again.