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UN Welcomes Nepalese Government Deal With Protesting Madheshis

The international community is welcoming a deal between Nepal's government and ethnic Madheshi protesters, after more than two weeks of crippling strikes. The deal means an end to protests that shut down most of southern Nepal, causing a severe fuel shortage and concerns about the upcoming election in April. Liam Cochrane reports from Kathmandu.

After 16 days of tense political negotiations, leaders from the government and ethnic Madheshi groups have announced a breakthrough deal.

The Madehshi leaders say they represent people living on the belt of flat land along Nepal's southern border with India.

They have long complained of discrimination and were pushing for more rights and autonomy rights in the lead up to a national election in April.

The Madheshi leaders backed their political push with strikes across the southern plains, disrupting life in Kathmandu as imports of gasoline, diesel and cooking gas ran out. Some protests turned violent and six demonstrators were killed in separate incidents.

The demand for an autonomous Madheshi state was the main sticking point, with fears in Kathmandu that such an agreement could lead to the breakup of the country.

But a compromise was reached, with an in-principle agreement to autonomy that would be decided on later by the Constituent Assembly, a body that will be created by an election April 10.

The U.N. mission in Nepal is assisting with the election, and spokesman Kieran Dwyer is optimistic about the deal.

"But this really does now open the way for a conducive environment across the southern plains to conduct the Constituent Assembly election and that that election can actually be inclusive of a very large part of Nepali society," said Dwyer.

The agreement was also welcomed by India and the U.S., and victory rallies were held by Madheshis in many parts of Nepal's south.

The eight-point agreement includes a decision to recruit more Madheshis into the Nepal Army, as well as compensation for the families of protesters who were killed and injured.

Kieran Dwyer says the U.N. is confident that elections can happen by April 10, but sees hurdles in the near future.

"Very significant logistical challenges in Nepal," said Dwyer. "The topography here from the plains through up to the high Himalayan mountains makes communications, logistics a major challenge - ballot papers across all villages in the country. But again, we are confident that this can be done, but they're not small challenges."

Several Madheshi political parties will be allowed more time to nominate their candidates for the April elections, putting further pressure on an already tight election schedule.