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Nepal's Highways Empty as Maoists Call for Countrywide Blockade


In Nepal, a transport blockade called by Maoist rebels has halted traffic to the country's major cities. The blockade began a day after the government offered an amnesty to the rebels, who have been waging a decade-long fight to turn the Himalayan kingdom into a communist republic.

The Nepal government posted soldiers along key mountain highways and offered armed escorts to vehicles defying the Maoist call for a blockade - but roads leading to the capital Kathmandu and other towns remained deserted.

The rebels ordered the indefinite blockade starting Tuesday as part of their movement to topple the monarchist government led by King Gyanendra.

The Maoists have so far relied on intimidation and fear of reprisals to ensure compliance with the ban, but in the past they have set up roadblocks and attacked vehicles to enforce similar blockades.

Editor of Samay magazine, Yuvraj Ghimire, says there are concerns the blockade could cut off major cities and lead to shortages, despite assurances from authorities that they have stockpiled sufficient supplies.

"Certainly there is a fear that it has already had some kind of impact and things are not moving into Kathmandu and that there could be a crisis of essential commodities in the days to come if the blockade is not lifted," Ghimire says. "Although the Maoists are under pressure from human rights groups, from media, from major democratic, political parties to call off the blockade considering the agony that the ordinary people of this country are going to face."

Some observers say it is too early to judge the impact of the blockade, because it has coincided with the Hindu festival of colors - a major holiday in the country.

On Monday the government renewed an amnesty offer to the Maoists, promising the rebels up to 14 thousand dollars if they surrender with their weapons in the next three months. Officials also offered other incentives, such as land and jobs, and said legal cases against the insurgents would be withdrawn.

Samay magazine's Ghimire says similar offers by the government in the past have failed to undermine the decade-long Maoist rebellion.

"It might have some kind of very limited impact, but it is not going to put a halt to the entire insurgency problem," Ghimire says. "It is a tactical, administrative move. It does not raise so much hope."

Nepal's King Gyanendra seized power last year after sacking the government for failing to halt the rebellion. But his royalist administration has done little to stem the insurgency. In fact the Maoists have threatened to spread their revolt from the countryside to the cities - and have called for a nationwide strike from early next month.

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