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Nepal Government, Rebels Scheduled to Begin Talks - 2003-03-30

Nepal's government says it will begin talks with Maoist rebels this week to end seven years of insurgency in the mountain kingdom. The rebels have been fighting to replace the country's constitutional monarchy with a communist republic.

Nepal's interim administration says it will hold a "goodwill meeting" Tuesday with the rebels. Government negotiator and minister Narayan Singh Pun says this meeting will pave the way for later, more substantial peace talks.

Two months ago the two sides called a truce and this will be the first face-to-face meeting between the government and the rebels since October 2001. Top Maoist leaders have left their secret strongholds in rural Nepal to meet government representatives, and have appeared in the capital Kathmandu in public for the first time since the insurgency erupted in 1996.

Baburam Bhattarai, the second-in-command of the rebel group, told reporters that the Maoists are "sincere and serious" about resolving the insurgency that has wracked the country.

But the Maoist leader also accused government troops of harassing rebel supporters, and preventing them from holding public meetings. He says the Maoists want rebels held in custody released before formal peace talks start.

Political analysts say the rebels' decision to appear in public is a "positive signal," which shows commitment to the peace process.

But a political analyst at the Nepal Center for Contemporary Studies, Lok Raj Baral, says there are big differences between what the government and rebels want to discuss.

"They say government wants to have talks first on developmental issues, rehabilitation of people, and other reconstruction issues, but the Maoists say they want to have talks first on the political agenda," he said.

The rebels are asking for the establishment of an interim government, and a constituent assembly to frame a new constitution for the country.

This is the second try at peace talks. A dialogue in 2001 collapsed when the Maoists walked out of the talks after the government refused to negotiate on their demand to abolish the monarchy.

Recently, the rebels have been more flexible. Earlier this month, a top Maoist leader said the rebels would agree to keep the monarchy if the people wanted the institution. The king is revered as God in the Hindu kingdom. But the Maoists say their goal to establish a communist republic remains unchanged.

The halt in violence has brought a temporary respite to this tiny nation, where more than 7,600 people have been killed in the violence.