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Nepalese Troops Try to Head Off Threatened Rebel Blockade

Hundreds of soldiers are patrolling the highways outside Nepal's capital of Kathmandu to head off a blockade threatened by communist insurgents. The rebels ordered the blockade to coincide with the ninth anniversary of their movement, which aims to topple Nepal's monarchy.

Trucks and buses continued to ply the roads outside Kathmandu on Saturday, but military officials say traffic is lighter than usual. In some areas, troops are using helicopters and mine-proof vehicles to escort convoys of trucks through the countryside - protection against possible attack by the Maoist guerrillas.

Rebel leaders have called for an indefinite transport strike across Nepal, to mark the launch of their insurgency nine years ago. The strike is also intended to protest King Gyanendra's decision last week to dismiss Nepal's government, put political rivals under house arrest, cut off telecommunications and censor the media.

Rebel blockades have proven successful in the past. Last year, the Maoists effectively blockaded the capital for days, leading to a surge in the price of food and fuel. Human rights workers say this strike has added to a climate of fear already affecting Nepal since the king took control of all media outlets.

Irene Khan, the secretary-general of the rights group Amnesty International, is visiting Nepal to assess the human rights situation following the king's takeover.

"People outside Kathmandu and even inside Kathmandu have access to very limited information, which is likely to get even less with the blockade," she said. "And what I have been hearing since I've been here for the past 24 hours is actually fear and uncertainty."

The rebels claim to model their movement loosely on the teachings of the late Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. Their goal of overthrowing the monarchy has fueled much of Nepal's political turmoil, creating a stalemate between the king and the country's political parties.

The king said he took over the government when the parties failed to organize elections and end the insurgency. The parties accuse the king of using the rebel threat as a justification to shore up his own political power.

Much of the international community has condemned the takeover. On Friday, the U.S. ambassador to Nepal said King Gyanendra had promised privately to restore civil liberties within 100 days.

But rights workers fear that may be too late to prevent a surge in violence. Ms. Khan from Amnesty International on Saturday is leading a delegation to the southern town of Nepal Gunj, in part to assess whether fighting between Maoists and government forces has intensified.

"Our message to all parties in this conflict is to respect international humanitarian law and human rights," she said. "There can be no excuse for abuse, and violence or killings and kidnappings, torture, detentions, disappearances. "

Nepal suffers the highest number of political disappearances in the world - a tactic rights workers say is used by both the military and the rebels. Another 11,000 people are estimated to have been killed in violence related to the conflict.