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Rebel Blockade of Nepalese Capital Turns Deadly

In Nepal, one person has been killed and several injured in violence linked to a countrywide transport blockade enforced by communist rebels.

Officials say Maoist guerrillas hiding in the forests opened fire on a convoy of vehicles traveling along a mountain highway late Sunday. The incident occurred 90 kilometers west of Kathmandu.

Officials say the rebels were targeting army vehicles escorting the convoy, but bullets hit a bus, killing the driver and injuring several passengers.

This was the first fatal attack on a highway since the Maoists imposed a nationwide transport blockade on February 13. Previously, the rebels had relied on mere threats of retribution to bring traffic to a halt.

The rebels say the blockade is in protest of King Gyanendra's takeover of power earlier in the month, although they have called such blockades before.

The action has become a test of strength with the royalist administration, which has vowed to crush the Maoists if they do not respond to the king's call for negotiations.

The rebels have been putting logs and trees across key highways. They have threatened to maintain the blockade until the King reverses his takeover.

The military is clearing the roadblocks and encouraging vehicles to continue moving by promising them armed escorts.

But traffic is down to a trickle on many highways, and cargo vehicles are reported to be piling up in several places. Army officials call it a "see-saw" battle.

Yuvraj Ghimre, editor of Nepal's "Samay" magazine in Kathmandu, says the rebel action is threatening to cut off crucial supplies to the capital and other towns.

"Basically blockade of this road, which is supply line to Kathmandu, is creating problems, it might create some kind of a shortage, it might affect the price rise of essential commodities," said Yuvraj Ghimre.

The King says his recent takeover of power was necessary to tackle the rebellion, which successive governments had failed to control.

But Ajay Sahni at New Delhi's Institute for Conflict Management says the blockade has made it more difficult for Nepal's small and ill-equipped army to tackle the rebels.

"A very large force has now been dedicated just to keeping a couple of arterial routes for the supply of goods to Kathmandu open, which means that you have in fact withdrawn a substantial force from counter-insurgency operations," said Ajay Sahni.

Political parties also complain that the army is focusing much of its attention on muzzling protest and rounding up political opponents and human rights activists, instead of fighting the guerrillas.

The international community has strongly opposed the royal takeover, and asked the King to restore democracy quickly