Maoist red sea paralyses Kathmandu, PM to address nation

By Sudeshna Sarkar,IANS,

Kathmandu, May 1 (IANS) Tens of thousands of people in red T-shirts and red caps and waving the red flag of Nepal’s opposition Maoist party swamped Kathmandu on May Day, paralysing the capital ahead of an indefinite general strike called by the former guerrillas.

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Security forces were on high alert and nearly 15,000 personnel in riot gear were deployed at major intersections as the government said it feared violence despite a Maoist assurance that their protest would be peaceful.

Embattled Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal announced he would address the nation at 6 p.m.

Riding on the roofs of packed buses, trucks and motorcycles, thousands of men and women headed towards the public ground at Ratna Park in the capital where Maoist chief Pushpa Kumar Dahal Prachanda and other top leaders of the formerly banned party are exhorting supporters and the public to launch a last “decisive” revolution against the coalition government.

“Our war will continue,” marchers chanted while converging at the heart of the city from 18 major areas in the capital.

“The president’s unconstitutional step has to be revoked. Form a national government and ensure peace and a new constitution,” they demanded.

Shops remained closed and transport disappeared as reports started coming in of police arresting nearly a dozen people with arms and the prime minister telling UN officials that he feared violence during the May Day rally.

The prime minister, who met visiting UN Assistant Secretary General Ajay Chhibber and Karen Landgren, chief of the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) that is overseeing the disarming of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA), told them that though the government was ready to meet the situation with utmost restraint and responsibility, it had information that there would be attempts to instigate violence during the May Day rally.

“A large number of PLA fighters have left their cantonments, registered PLA fighters have been arrested with arms, and large amounts of arms and explosives have been seized, which violate the peace pact with the Maoists,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement.

The Maoists, however, said the government was spreading propaganda in a bid to crack down on their peaceful protests.

“Our protests will be peaceful,” Maoist deputy chief Baburam Bhattarai said. “However, if the government tries to attack our peaceful protests, it alone will be responsible for the consequences.”

The former rebels said they had brought 500,000 workers in the capital to take part in the rally, meant to force the government into enforcing a new constitution by May 28.

According to them, the prime minister’s resignation will create a conducive environment. If an agreement is not reached by sunset, they have threatened to start an indefinite general strike nationwide from Sunday.

Madhav Nepal, who says he has the support of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has so far ruled out stepping down.

The two biggest ruling parties and the Maoists met for talks Saturday in a last-ditch attempt to avert the general strike. The ruling parties are asking the Maoists to call off the strike before they agree to anything.

Maoist chief Prachanda said his party emerged as the largest after the elections in 2008 and should therefore be allowed to lead a new national government.

He accuses the ruling parties of trying to sabotage the peace process and prevent a new constitution from coming into effect.

“We will continue our general strike till our demands are met,” Prachanda said. “We have the power to keep it up till that happens.”