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Monday, 14 May, 2001, 11:56 GMT 12:56 UK
Nepal's growing rural revolt
Nepalese security forces training
Security is being beefed up as rebel activity rises
By Daniel Lak in Kathmandu

Clutching vintage Enfield .303 rifles, Nepalese police patrol the bazaars of the remote western town of Musikot.

We desperately need to get dialogue going to avoid a civil war.

Human rights activist Padma Ratna Tuladhar
This is the district headquarters for Rukum, a large and impossibly rugged swathe of the Middle Hills that is largely off-limits to the police these days.

Shadowy Maoist rebels control most of Rukum and several neighbouring districts, confining the poorly-armed and trained police to a few places like Musikot.

The Maoists have killed more than 100 police officers so far this year, more than 30 of them in late March in the next valley over from Musikot.

Demoralising strategy

The strategy is to assert sovereignty over the countryside by demoralising the police, and it seems to be working.

Nepal valley view
Large areas are effectively off-limits to the police
A senior official in Musikot told me that constables stationed there were nervous and unhappy.

They felt exposed, he said.

Townspeople were philosophical about the situation, although many - especially government workers - said they were worried too.

"Till now, we haven't been attacked," said a shopkeeper,

"But anything can happen anytime. The Maoists aren't far away."

'Free zones'

A short walk outside Musikot and you're in what the Maoists call "free zones" - where the police have pulled out rather than face rebel attacks.

We have to stand up for democracy and the rights of our nation.

Deputy premier Ram Chandra Poudel
The terrain is rugged and beautiful, classic countryside for guerrilla warfare.

There are no roads, just footpaths and rickety bridges over the rushing mountain rivers.

The first Maoist slogans appear less than an hour into the journey.

"Support the Peoples' War", proclaims one in Nepalese script.

"Observe the fifth anniversary of our struggle" says another.

Tacit support

It has been just over five years since Nepal's Maoists began fighting the elected government in Kathmandu.

Maoist graffiti
The rebels are fighting for a "People's Republic"
Villagers along the trail from Musikot are either completely silent - unusual for Nepalese, a loquacious and friendly people - or make no secret of their support for the Maoist uprising.

"Electricity, roads, health and education, all these will come with the Maoist," says a young women in her late teens, walking with a group of friends.

The others nod and join in excitedly.

"When I'm done with my studies, maybe I'll join the Peoples' War too," says a 15-year-old.

The Maoists are intensely security-conscious, especially now that the government is about to deploy the army to protect a big development programme in rebel-affected areas.

Villagers told us that armed groups of Maoist fighters had been moving around in the area a few days earlier.

"Perhaps they're plotting their next strategy," said a young man in Simle village, six hours walk from Musikot.

'Protecting democracy'

In Kathmandu, the authorities sound determined to press ahead with army deployment.

Imprisoned rebels
The authorities are determined to stamp out the revolt
"We have to protect the rights of the people, their lives and their livelihoods," says Deputy Prime Minister, Ram Chandra Poudel.

Human rights groups - who have criticised both sides for brutality and atrocities - are wary of the army's role.

"It's dangerous," says activist and former freedom fighter, Padma Ratna Tuladhar,

"An encounter between military and Maoists could escalate the conflict. And we desperately need to get dialogue going to avoid a civil war."

Mr Tuladhar and others like him are trying to arrange peace talks, which both sides say they want, but so far to no avail.

"No one can win militarily," says a retired army officer. "But there is much to lose if the violence escalates."

It is safe to say that ordinary Nepalese - most of them - share this sentiment, and they hope that both government and the Maoists are listening to them.

Daniel Lak in Kathmandu
"The strategy is to assert sovereignty over the countryside"
See also:

02 Apr 01 | South Asia
Nepal rebels launch major assault
16 Oct 00 | South Asia
Nepal rebels 'offer peace talks'
25 Sep 00 | South Asia
Maoist rebels kill police in Nepal
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