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Last Updated: Monday, 13 September, 2004, 07:33 GMT 08:33 UK
Police bear brunt in Nepal's war

Charles Haviland
BBC correspondent in Beni, Nepal

Police station in Beni
The police station in Beni was attacked by thousands of Maoists
In Nepal's eight-year war with Maoist guerrillas, no group has been harder hit than the police.

They have lost more than 1,200 of their number.

The police consistently suffer more casualties than the army, who were not used at all against the Maoists for the first five years of the conflict.

To find out more about what the police have been through, I travelled to the isolated town of Beni, where memories of a recent bloody ordeal are raw.

This district headquarters in west-central Nepal stands in rugged country at the bottom of a gorge.

Less than six months ago, Beni was the scene of the biggest battle of Nepal's war to date.

Some 5,000 Maoists surrounded and attacked strategic buildings, including the police post, by night.

Window leap

The trauma was such that only one policeman who lived through that day remains posted in the town - Sergeant Sher Bahadur Khan.

Sergeant Sher Bahadur Khan
When I got out of the water, I saw the dead bodies of so many of my friends
Sergeant Sher Bahadur Khan

"People used to say how easy it would be for the Maoists to launch a sudden attack. But I never believed they'd do it," Sergeant Khan told me.

But on 20 March, with 120 police on duty, it happened.

"Hundreds had infiltrated. They fired from hilltops all around, and the windows of the houses," the sergeant said.

He and his colleagues fired back, but soon ran out of ammunition.

At one point he crept downstairs and was met by more than 20 Maoists who threatened to kill him for not handing over his weapons.

The sergeant ran back upstairs and jumped from a window.

With a fractured leg, he took refuge in the waters of the fast-flowing Kali Gandaki river for nine hours until help arrived.

"When I got out of the water, I saw the dead bodies of so many of my friends," he said. "It was horrific."

Negotiated release

The town's new police chief, Deputy Superintendent Rajendra Man Shrestha, explained exactly what happened.

"When the Maoists realised the police's ammunition was finished, they blasted the outer perimeter, came inside and captured all our policemen and started killing them.

It's impossible for the police to fight [the Maoists] with the arms and facilities we are given
Rajendra Man Shrestha,
police deputy superintendent

"Here inside they killed 20 and took 34 captive. They killed two more outside. Eighteen were injured."

The release of the hostages was only negotiated weeks later.

The army suffered 13 dead and the retreating Maoists several dozen.

Today Sergeant Khan's surviving comrades have all left Beni.

"My wife and all my relatives are urging me to quit this job," he says.

"But I don't want to - I'd be happy to fight for the country again."

Today it is difficult to believe what Beni went through.

The bazaar quarter is buzzing, while the police station has been rebuilt after almost total destruction.

But as he oversees reconstruction, Deputy Superintendent Shrestha says the police are being forced to take on what should be the army's role.

"They are recruited for that job. We are not. That's the difference," he says candidly.

"Now it's impossible for the police to fight [the Maoists] with the arms and the facilities we are given."

A recent police recruitment drive here failed to attract a single applicant.

Courageous sentiments

Other police sources admit that resignations are increasing.

Tikaram Rai, an expert on police matters, says that in today's unified command system, which groups police with the army, the police seem to be first in the line of fire.

Police recruits drilling
Many police recruits believe the career gives them status

"When a camp is being guarded, the police always get asked to take the outermost position," Mr Rai says.

"It was the same at the earlier big battle of Bhojpur - the police were on the outside so they took the biggest battering. Morale is very low."

Recruitment is not in crisis everywhere.

In training centres such as the town of Pokhara, there are fresh recruits by the hundred, perfecting their drill routines.

This is a career that gives them status. In some villages it might be the only alternative to being press ganged by Maoists.

"My life is not the most important thing," says new trainee, Baburam KC.

"If our country needs us, we must do whatever duty we are set."

Those are courageous sentiments.

But police forces are designed to uphold law and order. In Nepal's war, they are taking the biggest beating.

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