Nepal Says 200 Maoist Rebels Killed
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KATMANDU, Nepal (AP) _ Army helicopters killed more than 200 rebels in airstrikes on guerrilla strongholds in western Nepal, government officials said Monday, a day before Nepal’s prime minister meets President Bush to discuss the communist insurgency.
The deaths raised the claimed toll to more than 560 in four days of fighting in this Himalayan mountain kingdom _ which would be the deadliest violence since the rebels began their struggle to topple the constitutional monarchy six years ago.
The claims could not be independently verified and Defense Ministry spokesman Tana Gautam said only 129 bodies had been found since Thursday. He said rebels often carry away or bury bodies. Neither journalists nor Nepal’s small human rights groups have access to the battle zone. Rebels do not usually comment on battles.
The casualty figures are ``purely speculation,″ said Yubaraj Ghimire, editor of Nepal’s largest selling newspaper group, Kantipur. ``It depends on circumstantial evidence, like heavy firing from the army side and no response from the rebels, but I am not disputing the figures.″
Achhyut Wagle, spokesman for Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, said government estimates are mostly based on evidence found by soldiers, such as body parts ``or signs of bloodstained bodies having been dragged away.″
In London, Amnesty International said it had not questioned the government’s casualty figures, but was concerned that civilians are being harmed.
``We have appealed to the Nepalese government security forces to ensure that civilians are not caught up in the conflict,″ said Maya Catsanis, a spokeswoman for the human rights group.
The rebels draw their inspiration from Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong.
``In yesterday’s operations, more than 200 Maoists were killed,″ Wagle said.
Security forces claimed to have killed more than 360 guerrillas in gunbattles since Thursday, before the air attacks began Sunday night, and acknowledged losing three soldiers and one police officer.
The attacks took place as Nepal’s prime minister travels to Washington to meet with Bush on Tuesday to ask for military aid to help fight the rebels. He is scheduled to meet British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London on Saturday.
``We are seeking all sorts of help, except the presence of American soldiers here,″ Wagle said Sunday. ``We are seeking arms and ammunition, helicopter gunships and other military supplies.″
The Bush administration recently asked Congress for $20 million in non-combat military aid for Nepal, including army uniforms, provisions and medical supplies.
On Monday, another senior government official said on condition of anonymity that several senior rebel leaders, including at least six members of the group’s Central Committee, were among a group surrounded by the army in dense forests of the Rolpa and Pyuthan districts Monday night _ the same districts where the airstrikes took place.
The official said that two other top rebel leaders had escaped, including Krishna Bahadur Mohara, who participated in peace talks before breaking them off and resuming attacks on government forces last November.
That prompted King Gyanendra to order the army into the biggest offensive of the war, which had previously been fought by ill-equipped policemen at isolated village outposts.
The insurgency began in Rolpa and Pyuthan, feeding on crippling poverty and poor governance. In many parts of Rolpa and neighboring areas in northwestern Nepal, the rebels ran a parallel administration and courts that provided quick justice.