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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 April, 2004, 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK
US courts Nepal as anti-terror partner

By Nick Bryant
BBC correspondent in Nepal

Royal Nepalese Army soldier
The army is to get 20,000 American M16 rifles to update its firepower
The Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) is long on tradition, but short of modern-day weaponry.

Most of its rifles are over 30 years old and notoriously unreliable in combat.

Many of the knives look like they belong in a souvenir shop rather than on the battlefield.

So the administration of US President George W Bush is investing $17m of military aid in the RNA, mainly to pay for about 20,000 M16 rifles and night vision equipment.

The aim is to transform this 70,000-strong force from a parade ground-based army into a modern-day, counter-insurgency unit.

Washington wants the soldiers to become frontline troops in its "war on terrorism" - not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, but in Nepal itself.

Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are creations of America. They are no concern to us
Maoist fighter

If the country's eight-year Maoist insurgency were to succeed, US administration officials fear, the kingdom could become a terrorist haven - hospitable to groups like al-Qaeda.

Now that King Gyanendra's authority is being challenged by the rebels in many of the country's 75 districts, the Bush administration believes it has good reason to be concerned.

It has decided that the only way to prevent Nepal from becoming a "failed state" or, worse still, a "rogue nation" - is to increase the flow of military aid.

Strategic edge

America's ambassador to Nepal, Michael Malinowski, a straight-taking Chicago man with a pharaoh-like beard, makes the argument concisely.

"It's a long way from the United States, but we're concerned that areas in Nepal don't get out of control, don't become a vacuum where terrorist groups can move into and use Nepal for whatever."

Police make an arrest in Kathmandu
The rights commission says abuses have occurred on both sides

"Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda?" I ask.

"Yes", he replies in a flash, though he admits that America has no evidence or intelligence linking al-Qaeda with the Maoist insurgents.

The US strategy is clear: it is intensifying the conflict to force the Maoists to sue for peace, compelling its leaders to return to the negotiating table they left last August.

In the west of the country, where the Maoists are at their strongest, we went out on patrol with a 39-strong platoon, which will take delivery of its new M16 rifles by the end of the month.

The guns are lighter and more accurate than the soldiers' decades-old weapons, and much less prone to jam and malfunction.

Military commanders believe they will lend the RNA a crucial strategic edge.

The platoon's commander, a bespectacled major who received part of his training at a US military base in Kansas, confidently told me the new weapons would enable the army to defeat the revolutionaries.

Mountain strongholds

But few military analysts believe this war is winnable.

The treacherous terrain in which it is being fought makes a decisive victory all but impossible.

And even on the plains, where it should be easier for the government to assert its authority, there are roads the army cannot venture down.

Soldiers in Kathmandu
Analysts question the army's effectiveness in Maoist rural areas

We travelled to a village less than an hour from the district headquarters of Nepalgunj, where the Maoists are in the chair.

Its leaders told us the RNA had not been able to launch a military operation in the village for over 18 months.

In their mountain strongholds, they boast it is even harder.

When we met some of the Maoists' reclusive leaders, they laughed at the suggestion that Nepal could become a terrorist haven.

"Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are creations of America," said one, who replaced his Nike baseball cap with a mauve bobble hat shortly before we began our interview.

"They are no concern to us. This is a revolution for the people of Nepal."

The Bush administration has also run into criticism for aiding an army that has been accused of - and admitted to - some egregious human rights abuses.

Just 10 days before the collapse of peace talks last August, the army killed 21 people in the eastern district of Ramechhap.

They were lined up and executed at the end of a three-hour march.

Maoist rally in Nepal
There is concern the US may wrongly believe the war is winnable

The report by Nepal's National Human Rights Commission into the killings concluded that almost all of the dead bodies bore evidence of being shot in the head at close range. It blamed the RNA.

Then there are the growing ranks of the "disappeared" - men and women taken into custody by the RNA, often in the middle of the night, and held indefinitely without trial on suspicion of being Maoists.

Over the past eight years, the rights commission has documented 709 "disappearances", blaming the Maoists for 200 of them and the RNA for the rest.

Unquestionably, this is a dirty war, with atrocities on both sides.

But Mr Malinowski claims the Maoists have been guilty of the most heinous crimes.

"The RNA has a lot more to do, a long way to go, especially on human rights," he concedes.

"But progress is being made and I don't think we should apologise for that. I think we should be proud of it."

He pointed to how the US has also given the country $40m in humanitarian assistance, and claims that critics of American policy in Nepal, like France, should "put their money where their mouth is".

The Bush administration's involvement in Nepal marks a new departure in its strategy of pre-emption.

But there is a real concern that Washington is nourishing the belief that this war is winnable: that it runs the risk of prolonging the conflict rather than speeding its end.

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