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Nepal Cuts Phone Lines to Thwart Protests

February 18, 2005

KATMANDU, Nepal (AP) _ The royal government plunged Nepal into a communications blackout Friday _ the country’s annual celebration of democracy _ cutting phone service to thwart opposition activists trying to organize nationwide protests against the king’s seizure of power earlier this month.

In the capital, Katmandu, the call for demonstrations to recognize Democracy Day went largely unheeded. The fate of protests in other parts of the Himalayan nation was not immediately known because of the severed phone service.

The holiday marks the 1990 end of royal rule in Nepal and the shift to a multiparty democracy.

Meanwhile, King Gyanendra attended a military parade to celebrate the anniversary. Many residents of the capital city also participated.

Earlier, Gyanendra said in a message to the nation that he took control of the country on Feb. 1 only to save democracy from communist rebels and corrupt politicians.

An official in Washington said overnight that the monarch had assured the U.S. government that he will begin restoring democracy within 100 days. The official said Washington would consider suspending its security aid for Nepal if the king fails to follow through on that pledge.

Britain was considering similar action, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Friday during a tour of India.

``We are very keen to see the restoration of a representative government and democratic freedom as essential steps toward a sustainable peace process,″ Straw told reporters in New Delhi. ``We don’t believe there is any future from the current situation.″

Gyanendra sacked the interim government, suspended civil liberties and imposed emergency rule, justifying the move as necessary to combat guerrillas who have fought since 1996 to replace the constitutional monarchy with a communist regime. Political leaders, students, human rights activists, journalists and trade unionists have been detained in the emergency.

For days following the royal takeover, Nepal’s communications links to the outside world were virtually severed. Landline phone links later resumed, though mobile phone service has remained disconnected.

Landline phone service was shut off again Friday.

Critics have criticized the king’s moves as a setback for democracy, with the United States, Britain and other nations recalling their ambassadors this week.

Gyanendra rejected the criticism in a written message to his nation Friday, saying his takeover was made necessary by the rebels and by corrupt and squabbling politicians.

He said that ``terrorist activities″ _ typically meaning rebel attacks _ and ``politics far removed from the common man″ had put the country’s democracy at risk, adding to ``growing disillusionment with democracy itself.″

``It is clear to our countrymen that we ourselves had to take steps to extricate the country and multiparty democracy from this morass,″ he said.

His comments were echoed by some residents of Katmandu.

``The king did the right thing. These politicians are so corrupt and so inefficient. They needed this. That’s why you see no support for the rally today,″ said Damodar Chowdhary, a 22-year-old taxi driver.

Activists from the opposition Nepali Congress guided journalists to protest sites, but hardly any demonstrators showed up. Eventually, eight activists emerged from a narrow lane and started shouting slogans against the king in a busy Katmandu market.

``Death to autocracy! Down with the autocratic king!″ they yelled. But within minutes, they fled as a column of police in blue raced down the lane with truncheons and shields, followed by police cars with loud sirens. All of them were arrested.

The Royal Nepalese Army had tightened security on Friday, fearing attacks by Maoist rebels, spokesman Brig. Gen. Dipak Gurung said, although except for an attack on a jail, the rebels have refrained from major assaults since the king’s takeover. More than 10,500 people have been killed in Nepal’s insurgency since it started in 1996.


Associated Press writers Binaj Gurubacharya in Katmandu, Nepal, and George Gedda in Washington contributed to this report.

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