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Nepal Rebels End Blockade of Capital - 2004-08-24

In Nepal, Maoist rebels have called off a crippling weeklong economic blockade of the capital, Kathmandu. The announcement came hours after an attack by suspected Maoists killed four soldiers and wounded two others.

In a statement faxed to news organizations, Maoist leaders said they are calling off the blockade for a month in response to appeals from civil society and human rights groups.

But the rebels threatened to launch tougher protests if the government ignored their demands.

The Maoists ordered a blockade on Kathmandu last week demanding the release of jailed guerrillas, a probe into the alleged killings of several rebels and information on colleagues they say have disappeared.

The government welcomed the rebel move. It said the positive step would help efforts to start a peace dialogue with the Maoists, who have been fighting since 1996 to turn Nepal into a communist republic.

Hours before the blockade was lifted, a rebel attack left several soldiers dead and others wounded. The soldiers were clearing roadblocks from a highway linking Kathmandu to Tibet when the attack occurred.

Since the blockade began there has been sporadic violence in the city but Tuesday's attack was the first targeting the army.

Lok Raj Baral, executive chairman at the Center for Contemporary Studies, says the rebels imposed the blockade to show that they carried clout outside the remote countryside.

"They want to give that message that they are not only confined to rural areas," he said. "They want to show their presence even in the cities and the headquarters."

The rebels did demonstrate their influence. Many drivers refused to ply the highway although there was no rebel presence or physical barriers on the roads. Vehicles that did enter or leave the city were escorted by army vehicles.

The week-long blockade had virtually cut off essential supplies to the capital, which is ringed by mountains and is dependent on trucks to bring in goods. Food prices had soared and some gasoline stations had run dry.

The international community has been urging the Maoists and the government to come to the negotiating table to end the insurgency that has killed more than 9,000 people.