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Rebel visit moves Nepal closer to peace

By Bikash SangraulaCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 19, 2006



KATHMANDU, NEPAL

After a decade of conflict, Nepal's Maoist rebels formally joined a political process over the weekend with a pact that appears to move the country decisively toward peace.

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Optimism is palpable in the country after a landmark meeting Friday between the prime minister and rebel leader Prachanda that laid the groundwork for a new government. The deal calls for drafting an interim constitution in 15 days, forming an interim government with Maoist participation, announcing a date for constituent assembly elections, and dissolving both the parliament and rebel-run local governments.

It's heady stuff for a country that less than two months ago was mired in a stalemated conflict. Since street rallies forced a political turnabout, Nepal has journeyed steadily toward peace as leaders displayed a strong spirit of compromise, say analysts.

"Peace prospects are bright, thanks to good intentions demonstrated by both the negotiating sides," says Sudheer Sharma, the former editor of Nepal, a popular weekly news magazine. "With the willingness to compromise and accommodate, Prachanda has left the rigidity that is often associated with Maoism.... [The Maoists] are into open politics now."

But tempering some of the optimism is the failure of the pact to address the most contentious issue: Maoist arms and fighters.

"The agreement is a development in the positive direction, but much will depend on arrangements to neutralize the role of Maoist armed forces during the interim period leading to elections of constituent assembly," says Prakash Chandra Lohani, vice-president of the Rastriya Janashakti Party.

In a nod to concerns about violence harming the election process, the two sides have decided to invite the United Nations to manage the armed forces and weapons of both the Maoists and the former Royal Army.

But Mr. Lohani insists that glaring ambiguities remain on this issue.

"Under whose control will the Maoist army be when they join the interim government in a month? Will the UN be able to manage arms within that timeframe? Unless these issues are resolved, the whole idea of free and fair elections does not hold," says Lohani.

While the Maoists agreed on a cease-fire code-of-conduct with the government on May 26, they have continued to extort money and issue threats to journalists, thus violating the code, according to Kantipur, the largest daily newspaper.

Some 10,000 Maoist fighters

Nepal's rebels, who have waged a violent war for a decade to topple the monarchy, are believed to have a People's Liberation Army (PLA) of approximately 10,000 fighters. The rebels control 75 percent of the country's territory where party leaders and activists have been unable to operate since the last general elections were held seven years ago.

Analysts say that if Maoist leaders continue to control the PLA, their participation in the interim government would be problematic.

"The parties should be very careful," says Prateek Pradhan, editor of The Kathmandu Post. "Prachanda should promptly resolve the issue of arms. Otherwise, he or his comrades shouldn't join the interim government," he says, arguing that if Maoists continue to control an armed group, peace would be threatened in the event that the results of constituent assembly elections are not to their liking.

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