Monday, April 24, 2006

KATMANDU, Nepal — Nepal’s embattled King Gyanendra yesterday reinstated the lower house of parliament and expressed his sympathies for those killed in weeks of pro-democracy protests, trying to avoid a bloody showdown between demonstrators and his security forces.

“We extend our heartfelt condolences for all those who have lost their lives in the people’s movement,” Gyanendra said in the address, broadcast on state television and radio.

Nepal’s largest opposition party welcomed the king’s comments, and the sounds of celebratory shouts and whistles could be heard in the streets of Katmandu minutes after the 11:30 p.m. speech.

Gyanendra “has addressed the spirit of the people’s movement” and met the demands of the main opposition seven-party alliance, said Ram Chandra Poudel, general secretary of the Nepali Congress.

The reinstatement of parliament was a key demand of the alliance, which has been leading the demonstrations that have brought the Himalayan country to the brink of chaos.

“We are confident the nation will forge ahead toward sustainable peace, progress, full-fledged democracy and national unity,” the king said in the brief address.

Parliament’s lower house holds real elected power in the Nepali Constitution. The upper house is largely symbolic.

Earlier yesterday, foreign diplomats had been struggling to cut a deal to end the crisis. Countries with strong ties to Nepal, including giant neighbor India, were encouraging Gyanendra to give the opposition alliance what it is demanding, including the reinstatement of parliament and an apology for 14 demonstrators killed by security forces over protests, said diplomats who did not wish to be identified.

Protests have rocked Katmandu and many other towns for nearly three weeks, and police have clashed repeatedly with demonstrators demanding Gyanendra relinquish the absolute power he seized 14 months ago, saying he needed to bring order to the chaotic political situation and crush a Maoist insurgency.

The protests and general strike have paralyzed the country, with the capital locked down by repeated curfews, roads blocked by protesters, and food and fuel increasingly scarce.

Pro-democracy protesters again faced off against security forces in Katmandu yesterday.

In the north-central town of Chautara, five Maoist rebels and a government soldier died after the guerrillas attacked security bases and government buildings overnight, sparking gunbattles that lasted into yesterday morning, the Defense Ministry said.

Amid the chaos, the U.S. State Department earlier yesterday ordered all non-emergency embassy staff and family members to leave Nepal, according to an embassy spokesman, Robert L. Hugins. He said about half of the mission’s staff would leave.

Ambassador James F. Moriarty also recommended that all Americans in Nepal should consider leaving. China, Australia and Denmark are among the countries that have also warned people against traveling to the kingdom.

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