- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 22, 2004

KATMANDU, Nepal — A gloom has settled over this Himalayan capital five days into a blockade by Maoist rebels that has emptied the streets and driven up the price of staples.

Roads leading to Katmandu were nearly deserted yesterday despite a high-profile effort by the Royal Nepal Army to usher some trucks into the besieged city with an armed helicopter escort.

In the city, 90 percent of the shops were shuttered because of mistaken rumors that the Maoists had called a general strike. In fact, the only strike had been called by an association representing 10,000 families that have been displaced by the insurgents’ program of murder, torture, threats and extortion.

“There’s a deep sense of doom,” said Kunda Dixit, editor of the weekly Nepali Times. “It’s a very personal fatalism that everyone here has. People are too apathetic to even panic buy.”

Textiles salesman Sanu Maharjan, 43, one of the few shopkeepers to open for business, agreed: “People are too scared nowadays — they’ll believe anything.”

The rebels, who control about half the countryside, have managed to cut off Katmandu’s supply of food and fuel with little more than a threat to kill or maim drivers on the highways leading into the city.

But their military operations elsewhere are real. One soldier was killed and six police abducted Saturday night when the rebels attacked a police outpost and burned government offices in the far northern district of Jumla, local news reports said.

The insurgents also attacked a local prison and freed six prisoners. Jumla was the scene of a rebel assault two years ago in which more than a dozen police were killed.

The blockade of Katmandu poses risks for both the government, which faces unrest if it lasts too long, and the insurgents, who risk a public backlash.

Although the government has two months of rice in storage, gasoline and diesel supplies are expected to last only a few weeks. Staples such as tomatoes have doubled in price, to 30 cents a pound.

The Hindu kingdom, home to Mount Everest, is one of the world’s poorest countries. Most rural Nepalese live on 60 cents a day, with feudal upper classes holding most of the land and private industry.

Nepal is being pulled by three forces — King Gyanendra, who seized executive powers in 2002 and controls the army; the Maoists, who have slim support but strong influence in more than half the impoverished countryside; and the political parties, which have public support but are dogged by infighting and corruption.

The army and the insurgents have been at a military stalemate since peace talks collapsed a year ago, with each pushing for negotiations on its own terms.

Recently, it was the government applying pressure, through increased killings of suspected Maoists. Amnesty International, in a 2003 report, described “an escalation in arbitrary arrests, ‘disappearances,’ extrajudicial executions and torture by the security forces” since the talks failed.

Now the rebels are taking their turn, seeking to squeeze the capital until the government agrees to establish a constituent assembly and a new constitution.

“The final goal is still the same. They are still fighting for communism,” said Padma Ratna Tuladhar, a human-rights activist who helped bring the rebels to the negotiating table last year.

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