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Nepal Criticized for Distributing Weapons to Villagers - 2004-02-18

The government of Nepal has come under fire from an international think-tank for distributing weapons to villagers. The International Crisis Group says the plan, which is intended to help counter attacks by communist guerrillas, may lead to greater violence across the country.

The International Crisis Group, or ICG, says distributing weapons to villagers to form militias is almost certain to escalate Nepal's civil war.

The Communist Party of Nepal launched an insurgency against the royal government in 1996. A 17-month cease-fire between the two sides collapsed in August.

The government unveiled plans to form militias, or "volunteer security groups," in November. It handed out 10 shotguns to villagers in Sudama, 125 kilometers south of the capital. The result, the ICG says, was that the village was drawn into the conflict when rebels attacked it, most likely to steal the guns.

"The reality is that the Maoists have been looting weapons mostly from the armed police, on the rare occasion from the RNA, the Royal Nepali Army…," said Filip Noubel, the head of ICG's Nepal office. "This particular village was targeted precisely because it had been distributed weapons and we fear this could replicate and be multiplied should this program go on."

Since then, the government says, the weapons distribution program has been put on hold. But the ICG alleges that officials are considering resuming it.

The program may have greater repercussions beyond intensifying the war. In its briefing paper on the plan to form village militias, the ICG warns that a number of terrorist organizations have their roots in similar operations.

The Indonesian government formed armed groups to counter the spread of communism in the 1960's, and the ICG says those were the roots of Jemaah Islamiyah, an Islamic terrorist organization linked to al Qaida. The ICG also points out that al Qaida is partly the result of the decision by the United States to arm militants fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980's.

Mr. Noubel says the Nepali government has very little control over how villagers use the weapons they receive.

"They can eventually turn into very independent groups and might actually get involved in other ideologies and in turn into those terrorist groups mentioned in the briefing," he said.

Nepal's Maoist movement says it wants to overthrow the monarchy to bring greater rights to the rural population. On Tuesday, Kathmandu was brought to a standstill after the rebels called a national strike. The government says it has killed 65 rebels in fighting in central Nepal since Sunday.