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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 October 2005, 10:32 GMT 11:32 UK
Ceasefire eases tensions in Nepal

By Charles Haviland
BBC correspondent, Nepal

Dhangadhi street scene
Dhangadhi has suffered more insecurity than any other large town
Maoist rebels fighting Nepal's government are now more than half-way through the three-month ceasefire they called in early September.

The government, which King Gyanendra has led since seizing power in February, has refused to reciprocate the truce, saying it mistrusts the rebels' intentions.

There have been continuing reports of the army killing Maoists or Maoist suspects, sometimes unprovoked; and of the rebels victimising and sometimes killing civilians.

But the level of violence is markedly down, for instance in Kailali, a district very heavily affected by the insurgency.

'Exchanging' views

In a school in one tiny village, an unusual gathering is taking place.

Despite the sweltering midday heat, local Maoists are holding a meeting with representatives from Nepal's mainstream parties.

Maoist address in a school
Maoist speakers apologise for their 'mistakes'
They have invited them and teachers and businessmen to exchange views on Nepal's future.

The meeting is very much on the communist rebels' own terms. Their red banner is displayed and a minute's silence is held for a Maoist leader recently killed.

But Maoist speakers apologise for what they call their "mistakes", and party politicians feel it is worthwhile.

"In the past, workers from our party and others were victims of Maoist violence," says local Nepali Congress leader Ghanashyam Joshi. "Relations between us were bad.

"But the ceasefire has brought a change. They're increasing their contacts with us and there's no violence against us any more."

'One-sided'

The Maoists' chief for this and neighbouring Bardiya district is present.

Before the ceasefire, every day you heard blasts. It was like a kind of routine
Saroj
A fresh-faced young man calling himself "Comrade Atom", he told the BBC this was a ceasefire aimed at helping ordinary people and at working with the parties against the government.

He said the door was not closed against talking to the authorities, but strongly criticised them.

"This ceasefire is one-sided," he said.

"The royal regime's aggression has made things very difficult for us. The army is still killing and kidnapping people.

"In the past we would retaliate, but as we're not retaliating now they are doing it all the more - killing dozens, arresting people and stopping us moving around."

Asked about reports of the Maoists increasing their abductions of schoolchildren in parts of Nepal for political indoctrination, Comrade Atom would not be drawn.

"We have not been informed about this. I can't say anything more."

More relaxed

The bus to the district capital, Dhangadhi, passes endless fields where newly harvested rice straw is laid out to dry - and some of Nepal's most heavily fortified military barracks.

At one, a couple of soldiers climb on, give a cursory glance at the passengers and wave the vehicle on. Before the ceasefire, passenger Ramesh Kunwar says, bags would have been searched and all travellers made to disembark.

Damaged police post
Police posts such as this one were targeted by the rebels
Dhangadhi is a city of bicycle-rickshaws. Barely a car plies the streets, perhaps because the rich have fled to Kathmandu.

Its mayor was shot dead and it has suffered more insecurity than any other large town in Nepal.

Last February, 2,000 Maoists stormed its central prison, freeing over 150 prisoners including 70 Maoists. Seven guards were killed.

"Before the ceasefire, every day you heard blasts. It was like a kind of routine," says local restaurateur Saroj Bikram Shah.

But since September, "people are happy. We don't have any problem at all."

At the sports club, the police chief for this Far Western region, Deputy Inspector-General Ramesh Kumar Shrestha, has just finished a round of badminton.

He acknowledges things have relaxed.

"The situation is improving remarkably, not only because of the ceasefire but because of our effectiveness also," he says.

"People are enjoying the ceasefire. But our security status is the same: the Maoists have declared it for the people, not for the security agencies."

Comedian show
Late night performances are staging a comeback
He says the security forces here are effectively reciprocating the truce by not going on offensive operations, but alleges that in remote parts of this region the Maoists are still kidnapping and torturing people.

Mr Shah adds that the rebels are still extorting money from businessmen in Dhangadhi, and he expresses doubts about their overall intentions, saying they may be using the ceasefire to store up weapons and ammunition.

Late-night revelry

Whatever the politics of the ceasefire, however, it is giving people respite.

Late at night, in one far-flung village, local people put on a show for the religious festival of Dashain - traditional comedians take the stage followed by dancers gyrating to Bollywood hits.

It is being revived for the first time in six years.

The fun lasts till three in the morning. Before the ceasefire, organiser Mohan Chowdhury says, everyone would have been in bed by seven.

Their hope, although it may be a vain hope, is that the lull can continue beyond early December and Nepal be stopped from plunging again into full-scale violence.




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