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Opposition Leaders Arrested in Nepal as Insurgency Flares

In Nepal, the authorities have detained scores of opposition leaders and imposed a curfew on the eve of a nationwide strike called to protest King Gyanendra's seizure of power last year. The strike has the support of Maoist rebels who have been waging a violent insurgency.

Police arrested the opposition leaders following a series of early-morning raids in Kathmandu. As word of the detentions spread, scores of political activists went into hiding.

The government also imposed an overnight curfew in the capital before the first day of the opposition strike.

The four-day work stoppage was called by an alliance of seven political parties to press King Gyanendra to restore democracy. But the royalist administration has vowed to crush the protests.

A coordinator of the opposition alliance, Arjuna Nara Singha, says the crackdown will not deter political parties from holding pro-democracy rallies over the next four days.

"We are fighting against autocracy, the regime of the king," he said. "We want to give the message to the autocratic king and also the world that the Nepalese people completely stand for democracy."

The mood of defiance is already evident in the streets of Kathmandu. On Wednesday, dozens of lawyers, journalists and doctors were arrested as they staged protests, despite a ban on public gatherings in the capital imposed this week.

The government says it is stopping the demonstrations because Maoist rebels plan to infiltrate Kathmandu and incite violence.

But political parties say the protests will be peaceful because the rebels are supporting the strike and have announced a unilateral ceasefire in the capital to allow people to participate in rallies.

The rebels and the political parties have formed an informal alliance to end the king's rule. Under the agreement the Maoists will eventually join the political mainstream.

Yuvraj Ghimire, editor of Nepal's Samay magazine, says many people approve of the efforts to draw the rebels into the mainstream.

"They [people] want peace at any cost and if the political parties have taken certain initiative to bring Maoists into political mainstream in a peaceful manner, they are welcoming it," he said. "But the government has not responded to this call, basically trying to frustrate that move to bring the Maoists into the peace process."

But for the time being, the Maoist insurgency continues to rage in the countryside, where the truce is not in effect.

Police say a group of security personnel were killed in Jhapa district when the rebels fired on a government vehicle carrying examination papers.

King Gyanendra seized power in February last year, vowing to crush the Maoist insurgency. But critics say the crisis in the country has deepened since then. Not only has the Maoist rebellion intensified, but the king's move has alienated the political parties he dismissed for failing to quell the insurgency.