- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008

KATMANDU, Nepal (AP) — Nepal’s former communist rebels picked up more seats today as they extended their lead in early returns from elections that will shape the Himalayan nation’s political future.

The Maoists — labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. — had taken 44 seats out of 79 in constituencies where counting had been completed and were leading in most of the other areas where votes were still being tallied, the Election Commission said.

The traditionally powerful, centrist Nepali Congress was trailing with only 12 seats and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) had only 14 seats, the commission said.

As counting continued today, two people were seriously wounded in a gunfight between supporters of the rival Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) and Rastriya Prajatantra Party in a southern village, said Kavilashi Panthi, chief district administrator.

Scattered shootings and clashes that killed two people on election day and eight others in the days leading up to the poll did not deter millions of Nepalis from casting ballots in the country’s first election in nine years.

Returns yesterday showed the Maoists’ leader, Prachanda, who uses only one name, had won a seat representing Katmandu.

Complete results for the 601-seat Constituent Assembly are still a few weeks off, although officials say they should have a clear picture of what the assembly will look like later this coming week.

The Maoists’ strong early showing has surprised most observers, who before the vote had them placing third behind the country’s traditional electoral powers, the Nepali Congress and United Marxist-Leninists.

The election has been touted as the cornerstone of the 2006 peace deal with the Maoists, in which they gave up their 10-year fight to establish a communist state by force.

More than 13,000 people died in the insurgency.

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