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UN Team Investigates 'Disappearances' in Nepal

A United Nations fact-finding mission is visiting Nepal to investigate reports of widespread political disappearances in the mountain kingdom. Both government forces and communist rebels waging a violent insurgency in the country have been accused of serious human rights violations.

The visit by the four-member U.N. team to Nepal comes in the wake of recent reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which detail a large rise in the number of disappearances - people who are reportedly detained by security forces or insurgents and then vanish.

In a report issued in October, Human Rights Watch said that in 2002 and 2003, Nepal led the world in the number of people who had disappeared while in military custody.

Amnesty International says it has recorded 622 cases of people who have vanished after allegedly being taken away by security forces - more than half of them in the past year. They have included villagers, teachers, journalists and political activists.

A human rights activist with Nepal's National Human Rights Commission, Kapil Shrestha, said the military's victims tend to be people suspected of sympathizing with the rebels. "Security forces abduct, kidnap, arrest anybody and hold him or her incommunicado for several months, and sometimes he or she is subjected to torture," he said. "When such act is challenged in court they come out with statement that [the missing people] are not in their custody, so even the court is helpless to do anything."

Rights groups want the government to take steps to make the security forces more accountable.

However, they also blame the rebels for widespread human rights abuses that include abductions and hostage-taking, torture and killings. In recent days they have been accused of kidnapping a judge and an adviser to the former king. "Maoists are also equally responsible for the situation," said Mr. Shrestha. "We do not seem to have raised our voice against Maoist atrocities as we should have."

Since 1996, Nepal has been battling Maoist rebels who want to turn the country into a communist republic. The fighting has escalated in recent years as the rebels spread their influence from remote areas to much of the mountainous kingdom.

The U.N. team is to meet top Nepalese officials and relatives of people who have disappeared, and will also visit a prison and an investigation center. The team is expected to suggest measures to improve the situation in the country.