Carrying bamboo sticks in their fists, a crowd of men formed in the village of Ganeshpur. "Kill the Maoists and their supporters," a young man shouted as the mob moved down the street. Soldiers at a barracks 90 feet away stood by and did nothing.
Just weeks after a bloody uprising here in western Nepal's Kapilvastu district, the men of Ganeshpur village were out again last month, hunting for insurgents whom they blame for the war that has left more than 11,000 people dead. Government officials have applauded some of these anti-Maoist mobs, which have spread to nearby villages. The latest mob incident occurred Sunday in Parasi, a town 40 miles east of Kapilvastu.
Government support for civilian vigilante groups represents a dangerous new twist in the nine-year civil war here. Analysts warn that pro-government local militias could get beyond the military's control - adding a third, less disciplined, faction to the fighting.
"Failing to curb the rebellion for years, the government resorted to mob violence ... without assessing its serious repercussions. In the long run, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to control these mobs, even when the organized insurgents [like Maoists] come for negotiations," says Subodh Pyakurel, president of INSEC, a human rights group that had documented the Kapilvastu incidents.
Peace negotiations, however, seem far off. Officials reported Monday that rebels in the tourist town of Pokhara had bombed a market that was defying a nationwide Maoist strike. The blast killed a student and injured two others.
A military stalemate has left the Royal Nepalese Army in control of the capital, but wide swaths of the countryside are Maoist territory. Observers say that neither side enjoys much popular support.
Protests in the capital organized by five mainstream political parties continue almost daily against the king, who seized power on Feb. 1.
In the countryside, Maoists have enraged some villagers with violent intimidation and fines. Some of that anger boiled over into the street mobs.
"They [Maoists] harassed us to an unbearable extent. They killed our dear ones.... They looted our property while the government looked on," said a stick-wielding man last month in Ganeshpur. "Once we trace them, we will start beating them up with sticks until death."
The mob violence in the rural Kapilvastu district began Feb. 16, when two Maoist rebels abducted Indra Bahadur Bhujel, a retired police officer. Mr. Bhujel was taken from his house in Ganeshpur, which has now become a military base. The next day, when the angry villagers found Bhujel gagged, they freed him and lynched his captors. The mob went on to catch and beat to death nine other suspected Maoists.
People from 21 nearby villages started to rise up as well, leaving 31 people dead so far - many of them lynched, while some were burned alive. Vigilantes have also burned down about 600 houses. At its height, the mob numbered around 25,000 according to Kapilvastu's district officer, Modraj Dotel.
In response, Maoists have killed at least 17 villagers - beheading six or more of them - and have said they will kill about 100 others who are on their list.
Those watching events in Kapilvastu say the violence was not spontaneous, barring the incidents on the first day.
On Feb. 21, three ministers of the cabinet, chaired by King Gyanendra, flew down to Ganeshpur to congratulate the vigilantes. Even before this official sanction, Army and police personnel had been shown escorting anti-Maoist mobs on state-run Nepal Television.
"The state committed a grave blunder by backing these groups," says Narayan Prasad Poudel, chief of the Kapilvastu unit of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists. "Members of the group are free to kill those they don't like, not necessarily the Maoists."
In a report last month on Nepal, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group called on the government to "renounce the use of vigilante groups, village militias, and other extrajudicial means to contest the Maoists."
There are signs that the government is responding to the criticism. On Friday, the National Human Rights Commission called for a government probe into the Kapilvastu incidents. And Madhav Raj Sharma, the chief district officer in Parasi, the recent scene of mob attacks, said, "Actions will be taken against those found guilty of terrorizing the villagers."
The violence in Nepal has only escalated since the king's widely condemned power grab and suspension of civil liberties three months ago. The ongoing turmoil is now prompting Nepalis to seek refuge in India. According to officials and locals, about 35,000 villagers have fled to India by mid-March.
"I won't return even if someone gives me 500,000 rupees [about $7,000]," says Kala Hussein Siddiqi, a Nepali from Nandanagar who now lives in India. Siddiqi was one of those in the vigilante groups, but he says he didn't kill anyone.
Back in Kapilvastu, security has been beefed up. Once the security forces withdraw, the scale of violence will surge, warns Nanda Ram Poudel, chief of INSEC's Kapilvastu unit. "Both the Maoists and the locals are up in arms against one another and are waiting to take revenge."
Meanwhile, some residents just want the violence to end. Himanchal Pasi witnessed the killing of her adult son, Rambili Pasi. She says that on Feb. 20, vigilantes in Barahipur village burned him alive. "I am waiting for a day when no innocent has to flee or die," she says.