Page last updated at 00:44 GMT, Saturday, 16 May 2009 01:44 UK

UN mired in deepening Nepal row

By Navin Singh Khadka
BBC Nepali service

Maoist supporters demonstrate in Kathmandu
Maoist protesters have marched in support of the prime minister

A fresh dispute over the true number of Nepal's former Maoist combatants - which was supposed to have been verified by the United Nations - has cast a deepening shadow over the entire peace process.

The dispute began earlier this month when a video emerged in which the Maoist leader, Prachanda, admitted that he had exaggerated the strength of his forces 18 months ago to have more bargaining power during peace negotiations.

His comments are damaging for the UN because it verified Maoist fighters who are sheltered in a number of camps and are to be either rehabilitated into civilian society or recruited into the security forces.

Prachanda's recent resignation as prime minister following a row with the president over the sacking of the head of the army - combined with the row over the video tape - have made Nepal's rocky journey to a fully-fledged constitutional republic even more fraught.

'Deliberately inflated'

For the UN, that is a worry - because its peace mission in Nepal, UNMIN, might not be able to leave the country as quickly as it wanted to.

General Rookmangud Katawal
Army chief Gen Katawal's dismissal was blocked

In the video footage Prachanda said that 35,000 former fighters were registered with the UN - while the actual figure was 7,000-8,000.

"Had we revealed the real figure then, today we would have only around 4,000 of our fighters verified by the UN," he said in the video.

"Since we deliberately inflated the registration figure to 35,000, we [made a compromise and] managed to get around 20,000 of them verified."

The video was recorded in one of the UN-supervised camps where Prachanda was addressing his military commanders.

Under the peace agreement signed in 2006 at the end of Maoist insurgency, UNMIN has been monitoring the camps sheltering former Maoist fighters and supervising their arms.

Given that it had registered and verified all Maoist ex-combatants, the release of the video became an immediate cause of concern - and no doubt some embarrassment - for the UN.

UNMIN chief, Karin Landgren, has sought an explanation from Prachanda.

"When I spoke to him about it, he said he was speaking to his cadres at a time of extreme uncertainty in the peace process and that it was necessary to boost their morale," she said.

After the leak, Prachanda held a press conference to say whatever he had said in the video was in a "different context" and the figures of the ex-combatants mentioned did not include all the levels within the Maoist ranks and file.

'Look forward'

Regardless of its happiness or otherwise with Prachanda's explanation, the UN does not seem eager to allow the controversy to fester.

Prachanda insists his video comments were taken out of context

"Given that this process - the verification of combatants - was accepted by all sides in 2007, you really have to ask yourself if the best use of time now is to reopen the process the parties were all satisfied with," Ms Landgren told the BBC.

"Is it productive to reopen it now? People have been sitting in the cantonments for over two years now and UNMIN is not going to be here for ever, this exercise must look forward."

That UNMIN needs to pack up as soon as possible is something UN officials including Secretary General Ban Ki Moon have been repeatedly stressing.

At its inception in 2007, UNMIN's mandate was for a year. But that mandate has already been extended three times by six months.

With the current term expiring in the last week of July, UN officials had hoped that the most important part of the peace process - the integration and rehabilitation of Maoist ex-fighters - would be over by then.

But some major parties in the country do not see it that way and have expressed concern over Maoist "dissembling" in relation to the number of ex-combatants.

Leaders of the main opposition Nepali Congress have demanded that the former fighters be re-verified in the wake of the leaked video.

The centrist party's sister organisations have also submitted memorandums to UNMIN demanding re-verification.

Ms Landgren argues that if they want to do that, they will have to work through a committee formed to integrate former Maoist combatants into the national security forces or to rehabilitate them.

The committee has the representation of all the major parties.

But even when the Maoists were in government the committee hardly ever met - and things were much more stable then.

Now that the Maoists have quit the government following the controversy over army chief Gen Katawal - who was sacked by Prachanda but reinstated by the president - they have resorted to street protests, meaning that there is little chance of the committee reaching a consensus in the immediate future.

The eager-to-depart UN was already concerned about the delay in the peace process after the Maoists walked out of the government.

Now that the number of Maoist ex-fighters it verified is in dispute, it has many reasons to believe that departure will not happen in the immediate future.

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