King Birendra of Nepal, his wife and six other members of the royal family were shot dead Friday night by Crown Prince Dipendra in a family dispute inside the royal palace in Katmandu, the Himalayan kingdom's capital. The crown prince, heir to a 2,500-year-old throne, then turned his gun on himself, officials said.
The massacre in Narayanhiti Palace was said to be the worst mass slaying of royalty since 1918, when Communists killed Czar Nicholas of Russia and his family. Friday's killings were likely to have a major impact on Nepal, a fragile parliamentary democracy where Birendra, 55, held enormous informal power and commanded the loyalty of the country's armed forces and many of its 22 million people.
According to officials, Dipendra, 30, killed his father, King Birendra; his mother, Queen Aiswarya; his sister, Princess Shruti; his younger brother, Prince Nirajan; and four other people before shooting himself.
The Nepali Times newspaper said he died in a hospital early today after surgery for the gunshot wound. The Times said another member of the royal family, Prince Dhirendra, was critically injured.
A senior Nepali military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press that the shooting was prompted by a dispute over the crown prince's marriage because the queen reportedly objected to his choice of a bride. No other details were immediately available.
American diplomats and other observers in Katmandu said the killing did not appear to be politically motivated. One U.S. diplomat called it the result of an "incredible quarrel in the family that went incredibly bad."
But other analysts expressed concern that the tragedy could encourage Maoist insurgents, who have been gaining influence in rural areas of Nepal since declaring a "people's war" in 1996, to step up their violent attacks and take advantage of the country's political uncertainty.
It was unclear whether Nepal's army, often described as loyal to the king, would make any move to intervene in the crisis. There were no signs of military activity in Katmandu this morning, although riot police surrounded the palace to keep order as thousands of stunned and saddened Nepalis began streaming toward the area. The main street leading to the palace was closed as people began to gather.
"Shocking is an understatement," Janardan Sharma, a vegetable vendor who left his morning rounds to rush to the palace, told the AP. "We have been orphaned by this loss."
A helicopter was sent to Chitwan, 75 miles southwest of Katmandu, to pick up Prince Gyanendra, the king's younger brother, according to sources at the airport. Gyanendra, who is next in line to the throne, was expected to succeed Birendra.
In New York, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's office issued a statement saying Annan was "profoundly shocked" by the killings. Annan "extends his heartfelt condolences to the people of Nepal and calls for calm and stability in this difficult period," the statement said.
Birendra, a self-effacing man, was revered by many Hindus in his small Himalayan kingdom as a reincarnation of a Hindu god, Vishnu.
Birendra assumed the powers of king in 1972 on the death of his father, King Mahendra, and was crowned in 1975. He was the latest monarch in the Shah dynasty, which has held the throne since the mid-1700s. He ruled as an absolute but relatively benign monarch until 1990, when mounting public clamor for democracy led to the installation of parliamentary democracy.
The turning point in the resistance to the king came on April 6, 1990, when police fired at 200,000 demonstrators marching toward the royal palace. Officials said at least 72 people died, but witnesses put the death toll at more than 300.
A parliamentary government was established and the king has since remained a figurehead, appearing in ceremonies and addressing the parliament once a year. But despite his largely ceremonial official role, Birendra had played an important stabilizing role during Nepal's turbulent first decade as a democracy. In the past year, Prime Minister Girija Koirala has been embroiled in a paralyzing dispute with the major opposition parties, which has spilled into violent street demonstrations in Katmandu.
The country has also increasingly been plagued by the Maoist insurgency, which has gained influence over large portions of the countryside and launched bold armed attacks against rural police.
Koirala has been pressing to deploy the army to fight the guerrillas in the countryside, but Birendra had resisted this policy, reportedly fearing it would provoke civil war.