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Kathmandu Returns to Normal, as Rebel Blockade Ends - 2004-08-25

The Nepalese capital Kathmandu has returned to normal after Maoist rebels lifted a week-long economic blockade of the city.

Highways linking Kathmandu with the rest of the country hummed with traffic Wednesday after Maoist rebels unexpectedly lifted a blockade of the city.

Buses ferried passengers and trucks carried fresh supplies to the city, where food prices had been soaring and fuel had been rationed.

The Maoists say they lifted the blockade for a month on appeal from a wide range of groups.

The Maoists enforced the blockade for a week through fear rather than force, with vehicles staying off the roads to avoid retaliation. The rebels are known for brutal attacks on those who disobey their orders.

A member of Nepal's National Human Rights Commission, Kapil Shrestha, says the rebels may have lifted the blockade because it was alienating ordinary people, truck drivers, tea-stall owners and other workers.

Mr. Shrestha says the rebel move also signals that they are willing to be flexible.

"Since prime minister and ministers in the government have been asking Maoists to come to the dialogue, Maoists may also be sending some kind of green signal," he said. "They might be holding some kind of olive branch."

The Maoists are warning that they will begin tougher protests after a month if the government does not meet their demands.

Some analysts are describing the rebel move as a backing down, because it was lifted without achieving their key demand that jailed colleagues should be released. However, the government did agree to investigate the fate of many rebels who Maoists say disappeared after being detained.

Other analysts say the blockade enhanced the rebels' clout by demonstrating their ability to affect life in cities without a strong physical presence. Until now, the Maoists have had little reach in Kathmandu and other large towns, although they have come to dominate many villages.

Observers say the next few weeks are likely to see renewed attempts by the international and local peace groups to bring both sides to the negotiating table.

Two previous attempts at holding peace talks with the rebels collapsed after the government refused to rewrite the country's constitution. More than 9,000 people have been killed during the Maoists' eight-year attempt to turn Nepal into a communist republic.