In Nepal, the government has begun the first-ever peace negotiations with Maoist insurgents in a bid to end their bloody, five-year rebellion.

Police and army guards Thursday closed off the resort town of Godhavari near the capital, Kathmandu as government negotiators arrived under heavy security.

The negotiating team, led by Nepal's physical planning and works minister, is believed to be meeting three representatives of the Maoist movement, including its top regional leader. The discussions are focused on ways to end the violence that has claimed more than 1,500 lives since the insurgency began in 1996.

Analysts say the peace talks would not have been possible without the efforts of Nepal's Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. Since coming to power in July, he has made dealing with the Maoist insurgency his top priority.

Known in the Himalayan nation for his willingness to accommodate opposing views, few were surprised last month when Mr. Deuba declared a cease-fire and invited the rebels to begin negotiations. The insurgents responded by halting attacks on police. In the run up to the meeting, the government and the Maoists exchanged dozens of prisoners as a goodwill gesture.

Politics professor Pancha Narayan Maharjan in Katmandu says the rebels have been impressed with the prime minister's ability to generate support for government peace initiatives. "According to the Maoists, the prime minister before, Girija Prasad Koirala, was a hardliner," he says. "And Deuba is to some extent more liberal than Koirala. Sher Bahadur Deuba is also supported by other political parties. That's why the Maoists have agreed to negotiate with this government."

But Mr. Maharjan believes both sides are still too far apart on issues for peace talks to have a lasting impact.

The government refuses to discuss changing the current system of constitutional monarchy, adopted in 1990 after a popular revolt ended the country's absolute monarchy.

But the Maoists, who model themselves after Peru's Shining Path guerrillas, insist there can be no peace until Nepal replaces the monarchy with a Communist republic.