King of Nepal pledges democracy on anniversary of power grab, as rebels murder 20

One year after seizing power, Nepal's king pledged Wednesday to hold national elections within 15 months and claimed success in fighting communist rebels despite an overnight attack that killed at least 17 policemen and three soldiers. Scores of police were reported missing after the rebel assault on a mountainous town in western Nepal, a Royal Nepalese Army spokesman said on condition of anonymity, citing military policy.

In Katmandu, a coalition of the seven largest political parties attempted to hold a rally to press King Gyanendra to roll back his power grab. Police beat up several protesters and arrested nearly 100 others. Authorities sprayed the demonstrators with water from fire hoses and charged at them with batons.

Hundreds of other dissidents were arrested before the rally, politicians said. Similar rallies against the king's absolute rule also were planned in other major towns. Security forces throughout the country were on high alert.

King Gyanendra seized control of the government on Feb. 1, 2005, drawing heavy protests from the main political parties and criticism from foreign governments, which have urged him to restore democracy. He announced in an address marking the anniversary of his takeover that parliamentary elections would be held within 15 months.

"All the positions held by people's representatives will be filled" by mid-April 2007, Gyanendra said in the speech, carried by state-run media.

The address failed to satisfy the main political parties, which said it did not appear to signal any softening of his authoritarian rule and that they would press ahead with anti-government protests.

When he seized power, Gyanendra said he was taking action to quell the country's communist rebellion and end corruption. Since 1996, about 12,000 people have died in the rebellion, which aims to replace the constitutional monarchy with a socialist state.

Gyanendra insisted Wednesday that security had improved under his direct rule and the tide was turning against rebel attacks which he called terrorism.

"Terrorist activities have narrowed down to just a few sporadic criminal activities," he said.

However, hours before he spoke, rebels attacked an army camp, police station, jail and government buildings in the western town of Tansen, killing at least 17 policemen and three soldiers, the army spokesman said.

At least 143 policemen and the chief district officer were also missing in the town, about 300 kilometers (190 miles) west of Katmandu, he said.

Few details of the fighting which continued through Wednesday morning were available because communications in the area were severed and the only road was blocked by felled trees. Army helicopters were able to land and reinforcements had reached the area, said Gangadutta Awasti, the chief government administration officer in neighboring Rupandehi district.

Rebel leader Prachanda said the guerrillas had taken several policemen and soldiers captive.

He said in a statement e-mailed to news organizations that there also were rebel casualties, but would not give a figure.

The rebels ended a four-month unilateral cease-fire on Jan. 2, accusing the government of failing to reciprocate. Since then, they have launched increasing attacks.

Nepal has held no elections since 1999 and its parliament was dissolved in 2002. Plans for elections have been put off in part due to the insurgency, which has made deep inroads in the countryside. Krishna Sitaula of Nepali Congress, the largest political party, said he and many other dissidents were in hiding, and that his house had been raided several times ahead of Wednesday's planned rally.

"We have reports that more than 600 pro-democracy activists have been arrested by the police, and they are continuing raids," Krishna said.

"The king clearly said he is going to continue his authoritarian rule. It shows there is not going to be any changes immediately," said Mahesh Acharya of Nepali Congress.

Bamdev Gautam of the Communist Party of Nepal said the king's speech "was collection of meaningless words and nothing more. He was just self promoting about good things he claims to have done. We will step up our movement for democracy."

Earlier, the United States renewed its calls for the king to discuss a return to democracy with the country's political parties, saying authoritarian rule had been unsuccessful. Palace rule has "only made the security situation more precarious, emboldened the Maoist insurgents and widened the division between the country's political parties," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said overnight in Washington, reports the AP.


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