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King Claims Absolute Authority In Nepal

Government Is 2nd To Be Dissolved

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 2, 2005; Page A17

HUBLI, India, Feb. 1 -- The leader of Nepal, King Gyanendra, unexpectedly dismissed the government and claimed absolute power Tuesday, justifying the moves as necessary to restore peace and democracy in the face of a spreading Maoist insurgency in the picturesque Himalayan nation.

Political opponents described the move as a coup. International flights were suspended, phone and Internet connections were cut and the army was reported to be patrolling streets in the capital, Katmandu. Security personnel surrounded the home of the prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, according to news agency reports.


Nepalese soldiers patrol a street near the king's palace complex in Katmandu. Security forces also surrounded the home of the prime minister. (Binod Joshi -- AP)

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In a rare televised address, Gyanendra, 58, said he had decided to dissolve the government -- the second time he has done so in the past three years -- because it had failed to hold parliamentary elections or end the Maoist rebellion. He said he would form a new cabinet and vowed to restore "effective democracy within the next three years."

The king also imposed a state of emergency and suspended a number of constitutional liberties, including the rights of free speech, assembly and privacy, according to a statement that was summarized by the Associated Press.

Taken together, the moves added to the sense in the region that Nepal has no clear path toward repairing its political troubles or ending the violence that has claimed an estimated 10,000 lives since the Maoists launched their "people's war" in 1996.

Gyanendra's announcement poses a policy challenge for the United States, which has provided Nepali security forces with about $22 million in light weaponry and other forms of military aid over the past several years. Human rights groups have condemned both sides in the conflict for widespread abuses, but U.S. officials have justified the aid on the grounds that without it, the Maoists might win -- and Nepal could join the roster of failed states hospitable to terrorists.

In Katmandu on Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. Embassy issued a statement expressing concern at the "apparent setback for democracy" and said its diplomats would be "consulting with Washington" on an appropriate response.

The conflict is also of deep concern to neighboring India, which is waging its own struggle against Maoist rebels -- some with links to the Nepali insurgents -- in a number of eastern states and has provided Nepal with military aid. In a strongly worded statement Tuesday, India's Foreign Ministry condemned Gyanendra's announcement as "a serious setback to the cause of democracy in Nepal" and "a cause of grave concern."

With no telephone or Internet links to Katmandu, details were sketchy. A New Delhi-based foreign diplomat who spoke with a colleague in Katmandu on Tuesday afternoon said the colleague had described the city as "relatively calm," with streets filled with traffic and shops operating normally. But the mood was clearly tense. Anticipating possible unrest, residents formed long lines at grocery stores and gas stations to stock up on supplies, and armored vehicles with mounted machine guns patrolled the streets, news agencies reported.

Against that backdrop, some international air carriers canceled their flights into the capital, while others were turned back by Nepalese authorities before they could land.

For the last two centuries, Gyanendra's family has dominated Nepal, an impoverished country of 25 million people. The king's action Tuesday effectively restored the monarchy to the position of absolute power it occupied before Gyanendra's elder brother, King Birendra, established democracy in 1990. Gyanendra became king in 2001 following a bizarre episode in which Birendra's son, the crown prince, assassinated his father and a number of other family members in a shooting spree at the royal palace, then turned the gun on himself.

That was followed by a sharp escalation in attacks by the Maoists, who initially had participated in the country's democracy but took their movement underground in 1996. They now roam freely through most of the country's 75 administrative districts; as of November, about 80 percent of the country's police posts had been abandoned in the face of the Maoist threat.

Despite several cease-fires, peace negotiations between the government and the Maoists have made little progress, in part because the country's fractious political parties could never agree among themselves -- or with Gyanendra -- on a formula for settling the conflict.


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