Friday, September 21, 2007

Violence 'escalating' in southern Nepal

Violence 'escalating' in southern Nepal

KATHMANDU (AFP) — Communal unrest in southern Nepal is worsening and authorities need to act quickly to prevent all-out violence in the ethnically tense region, police and rights activists said Friday.

The unrest in the Indian border district of Kapilvastu erupted after the murder this week of local Muslim politician Mohid Khan, who headed an anti-Maoist vigilante group during Nepal's civil war.

Police said the clashes in the impoverished Terai lowlands had left at least 22 people dead, while Maoists accused the country's embattled monarchy -- which they are trying to oust -- of stirring up the unrest.

"People are being terrorised. The attacks are taking the shape of communal violence," district police deputy superintendent Kuber Kadayat told AFP from the area, around 230 kilometres (145 miles) southwest of Kathmandu.

"The death toll could rise still further as police are yet to reach remote villages where there have been reports of violent clashes in the past few days," said another local official, Narendra Dahal.
News reports said the warring parties in the area had divided along political, religious and ethnic lines.

"There was a tussle between Khan's supporters and Maoists because of past antagonism," the Nepali Times wrote Friday.

It said violence had also broken out between Pahadis, or hill people who have settled in the Terai, and ethnic Mahadhesi natives of the lowlands. The paper said there was also "potential this would turn into a Hindu-Muslim riot."

The leader of Nepal's former rebel Maoists blamed "regressive elements" -- a term used to describe supporters of the embattled monarchy -- for provoking the bloodshed.

"Our party strongly condemns the deliberate conspiracy of regressive and reactionary forces," Prachanda said in a statement calling on "all people including Hindus, Muslims, Mahadhesi (natives) and Pahadis to unite together."

The ultra-leftists quit the government earlier this week and have threatened mass street protests and work stoppages to push for the immediate abolition of the Himalayan nation's monarchy.

Under the terms of last November's peace deal, that issue was supposed to be decided after a popular vote scheduled for November 22 -- which the Maoists have also vowed to disrupt.
"There is a danger that regressive forces are conspiring to mobilise the army by using the communal riots as as excuse," Prachanda claimed.

At least 100 people have been killed in the Terai region this year, clouding a peace deal reached late last year between the government and the Maoists.

Around a dozen armed ethnic groups have emerged who say they are fighting for greater autonomy for the Terai, home to around half of Nepal's 27 million people. They have long been sidelined by Nepal's Pahadi-dominated elite.

The head of a leading local rights group said the situation was a "serious human tragedy."
"The government has not been able to maintain law and order," said Kundan Aryal, general secretary of the Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC).

"Both Muslim and Hindu community people have been affected and we think some criminal elements are taking advantage of the situation. There is a danger that communal disturbances could spread in other areas if the government doesn't take prompt action," said Aryal, who visited the area Thursday.

Five days after violence erupted in south Nepal following the murder of a local politician, sectarian clashes spread to two more districts, killing five more and taking the toll to at least 28.
A former municipal chairman and two others were killed on Thursday as a rally of protesters demanding security in Jagdishpur village in Kapilavastu district was attacked by a mob.

Two more people died on the way to hospital while the condition of nine was critical, media reports said on Friday.

The violence, smouldering for five days, was triggered Sunday after unidentified gunmen shot dead Abdul Moit Khan, an influential politician with strong links to the palace, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala's Nepali Congress party and armed groups across the border in India.

In 2005, soon after King Gyanendra seized total power with the help of the army, Khan had led a vigilante group that was responsible for the death of at least 12 Maoists.

Khan's murder sent his supporters on a rampage and they began indiscriminate looting, arson and attacks, stoking retaliation.

The violence also spread to neighbouring Rupandehi and Dang districts, assuming sectarian colour with mobs attacking mosques.

On Thursday, two more mosques were vandalised in Lamhi while shops were set on fire in Tulsipur. The district administration clamped curfew and prohibited the assembly of more than five people.

Parts of Kapilavastu and neighbouring Rupandehi district have been under curfew since Sunday.
After a group of Muslim leaders led a delegation to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala Thursday and sought security and the formation of a high-level commission to punish the perpetrators of the violence, the government finally named a probe panel.

An emergency meeting of the cabinet named a three-member commission, headed by an appellate court judge, Lokendra Mallik, to look into the sectarian violence.

However, going by the Koirala government's poor track record, with the reports of all earlier commissions being either swept away under the carpet; it is unlikely that the Mallik Commission would be more than a face-saving device.

Villagers in Kapilavastu have been flaying the government, saying it made neither any move to beef up security after the clashes started nor reached relief to the survivors.

Over 400 houses have been torched, displacing thousands. Many villagers belonging to the Muslim community are said to have fled to India for safety.

This is probably the gravest sectarian flare-up in secular Nepal that had lived in religious harmony when it was a Hindu state.

The incessant violence in the Terai casts serious doubts on the government's ability to hold elections that are just 61 days away. The ruling alliance has to also grapple with another crisis as the Maoist guerrillas have quit the government and begun a campaign to disrupt the polls.

At least two more armed groups of former Maoists, who are active in the Terai, have also warned they would not allow the polls to be held.

One of them, the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha led by former Maoist leader Jay Krishna Goit, has also called a two-day shutdown in the Terai from Saturday to condemn Khan's murder.
© Copyright 2007 Hindustan Times

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