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Page last updated at 02:39 GMT, Thursday, 6 May 2010 03:39 UK

Nepal brought to standstill by strike

By Joanna Jolly
BBC News, Kathmandu

A supporter of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) jumps over a burning effigy of Nepal"s prime minister as they block a road in Katmandu
The Maoists say they will not back down until the government resigns

The national strike called by the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is now into its fourth day, with no end in sight.

The country has ground to a standstill.

Shops, businesses, schools and offices have closed under the orders of tens of thousands of Maoist supporters, who have taken over the streets.

Transport throughout the country has been hit, with no private vehicles allowed to travel.

Although the government and the Maoist party are still in talks to end the crisis, there is no sign of a deal which will allow life to return to normal.

The Maoists say they will not back down until the prime minister and government resigns in favour of a national unity government led by them.

Strict enforcement

Nepal is often hit by strikes, but this one is particularly severe.

Journalist Prashant Jha said it was unusual in its strict enforcement and longevity.

We'll be here until this government goes down.
Chandra Lama, Maoist youth wing

"Tourists are going back, people are suffering, there is going to be a shortage of supplies, exports will dip and industry is crippled," he told the BBC.

In the capital Kathmandu, well-organised groups of Maoists have camped at intersections through the city and are vigorously enforcing the strike.

Facing them across roads and barbed-wire barricades are 15,000 riot police wearing state-of-the-art body armour.

"The leaders are saying this demonstration will remain peaceful, but we are prepared for violence because the Maoists look very aggressive," said Kathmandu Police Chief Ramesh Kharel.

But so far there have been few clashes between Maoists and the police, with both sides showing restraint.

'We'll fight'

Many of the Maoists are young men who have come into Kathmandu from the surrounding hills and valleys.

They have been organised into small groups, under the control of party workers.

Nepalese police in riot gear stand guard near a barricade in Katmandu
Nepalese police say they are prepared for violence to happen

Twenty-two-year-old science teacher Chandra Lama is in charge of a group of supporters who have taken over one of the main streets in the city.

As part of the Maoist youth wing, the Young Communists League, Mr Lama has been charged with maintaining discipline.

"I'm staying here, I'm in control of the crowds and I'm searching everyone who comes in here to make sure no one does anything wrong," he says.

Although there have been reports of many Maoists leaving Kathmandu to return to their farms, Mr Lama says the number of supporters remains high and that they have enough food and water to stay on the streets for weeks.

"We'll be here until this government goes down. We're here, we'll fight," he says.

Sticking points

Leaders from Nepal's main parties have been in talks since the crisis began on 1 May with a mass rally through Kathmandu by more than 100,000 Maoists.

Although they say they have resolved some issues, two main sticking points remain.

Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (L), Baburam Bhattarai, (L)
Nepali leaders have been in talks since the crisis began

There is still disagreement on the makeup and leadership of the new unity government and how and when some 20,000 former Maoist fighters will be integrated into the national army.

"We have to find a solution," says Maoist vice-chairman Baburam Bhattarai.

"Otherwise the alternative is confrontation, which we don't want."

But the longer the Maoists remain on the streets, the higher the chance of a violent confrontation.

When the strike began on Sunday, many Nepalis welcomed it as a chance to take a break from work and enjoy the empty streets and lack of pollution.

But after four days, there are signs that ordinary people are losing patience with the crisis.

'People will react'

On Tuesday, shopkeepers in Kathmandu clashed with Maoists who were preventing them from opening their businesses.

"If it is too much, the local people will react," says Subarna Brajracharya, who owns a small shop in the capital.

Nepalese transport fruits on a bicycle as they walk past Nepalese policemen near a barricade in Katmandu, Nepal
Many ordinary people are fed up with the crisis

"The people will not be in a position to tolerate this. They'll come out into the streets and start fighting the Maoists. I'm ready to do this myself."

Meanwhile, the stalemate continues with the Maoists refusing to call off the strike until the prime minister resigns and the government refusing to be forced out from the streets.

Both sides appear willing to continue the strike for as long as it takes for the other to break.

"While ordinary citizens suffer, political elites battle this out," says journalist Prashant Jha.

"The hope is there will be enough popular pressure on them to reach a deal so that the country can go back to normal."



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