Nepal peace process back on track with arms-monitoring deal

The Maoists will be allowed to keep their arms, but will be confined to barracks under deal struck Wednesday.

Nepal's peace talks, which a top rebel leader had termed on Monday as "on the verge of collapse," got a new lease on life Wednesday with the government and Maoist rebels sorting out differences on management of rebel arms.

Talks between Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and Maoist chairman Prachanda Wednesday afternoon ended with the two sides agreeing to confine the rebel fighters and their weapons within designated cantonment areas under United Nations supervision during the upcoming election process. Mr. Koirala stepped back from his earlier request to the UN to decommission rebel forces.

In a joint letter to the UN, the two sides have requested help in five areas including deployment of "qualified civilian personnel to monitor and verify the confinement of Maoist combatants and their weapons within designated cantonment areas."

Maoist leaders are against decommissioning before elections to an assembly to draft a new constitution, a key rebel demand since they started fighting government forces in 1996. On the other hand, the government had been adamant, until Wednesday, on decommissioning rebel fighters before the elections to prevent them from unduly influencing voters.

The breakthrough restores momentum to a peace process that has been marked by an openness to compromise. Yet some concern has been voiced about the strength of the proposed UN teams.

"Civilian monitors cannot effectively monitor armed groups," says Subodh Pyakurel, the head of INSEC, a human rights organization in Kathmandu. "Armed UN peacekeepers are necessary in Nepal."

The joint letter also requests that the UN "monitor the Nepal Army to ensure that it remains in its barracks and its weapons are not used for or against any sides." Other areas in which UN has been asked to assist are in the monitoring of human rights and a cease-fire code of conduct, and also to observe the elections, slated for April 2007.

Despite signing a letter that suits the rebels more than the government, the government negotiator Krishna Prasad Sitaula was upbeat. "The peace process will move ahead smoothly now," he said. Calling the deal "historic," Maoist spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara said: "Confusions have been cleared. Doors have opened for new agendas of the peace process."

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