A two-day strike called by communist rebels has shut down the capital and major towns in Nepal. The rebels have threatened to derail parliamentary elections that the government plans to hold next year.

Kathmandu woke to shuttered shops, deserted streets, and closed schools on the first day of a two-day strike called by a group linked to communist rebels.

The group, the New National Liberation Front of Nepal, has called the strike to press for the release of jailed Maoist rebels and to protest the deaths of guerrillas.

The shutdown follows a bloody week in which clashes between soldiers and rebels left at least 80 dead. In a daring attack Saturday, the Maoist rebels hit a police post just 15 kilometers from the center of Kathmandu - the closest they have ever come to the capital. Up until then, fighting focused in remote rural areas.

Yuvraj Ghimre, editor of Samay weekly newspaper, says the latest moves are attempts by the Maoists to show that their influence is widening.

"They want to show to the world outside, to the people in Nepal as well, that the capital is also within their reach and they can repeat in Kathmandu what they have been doing in other areas, especially the rural areas of the country," he said.

Rebels have stepped up the violence since Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba last month gave them a January 13 deadline to join the government in peace talks.

Nepal has been without a parliament for two years and Mr. Deuba has vowed to hold elections by April, even if the rebels fail to negotiate.

But in an interview published in a local newspaper Monday, Maoist leader Prachanda, who goes by only one name, says the rebels will "destroy" the elections if they are held before the government agrees to abolish the monarchy.

The rebels have been fighting since 1996 to turn Nepal into a communist state. Their rebellion has left nearly 10,000 people dead in one of the world's poorest countries. Thousands of villagers have fled from their homes, and there have been increasing reports of human-rights abuses.

On Sunday, three major international human-rights groups said in a joint statement that rights activists in Nepal face growing threats from the Maoists and the government's security forces.

They said rights activists have been tortured, abducted and threatened as they tried to protect people against spiraling abuses by both sides.