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Arrests Continue in Nepal Capital as Anti-Monarchy Strike Begins

Nepalese police have detained hundreds of opposition leaders and activists in the capital, Kathmandu, at the start of a four-day national strike that aims to pressure King Gyanendra to restore democracy. While the capital was gripped by the political showdown, nine people were killed in a provincial town raided by Maoist rebels engaged in a violent, decade-long insurgency.

Hundreds of security personnel in riot gear stood guard in the near-empty streets of Kathmandu Thursday, to thwart mass protests planned by an alliance of seven opposition parties.

But small groups of pro-democracy demonstrators emerged on the streets during the day, prompting a second wave of arrests. Many opposition leaders and activists had been detained a day ahead of the strike.

The government has vowed to crush the anti-monarchy protests, citing threats of violence by Maoist rebels. Authorities have banned public rallies, imposed a night-time curfew, and urged people to ignore the strike.

But businesses and schools shut down Thursday, and vehicles stayed off the roads in the city and on surrounding highways.

Prakash Man Singh, a spokesman for the Nepali Congress Democratic Party, says the government's tough measures did not deter people from supporting the opposition's demand that the king give up the powers he seized more than a year ago.

"The people have taken seriously the call given by the seven-party alliance. We do not want an autocratic monarch over here in Nepal, and we want to restore peace. We want total democracy. We want sovereignty back to the people," said Prakash Man Singh.

The United Nations and the United States have criticized the ban on rallies and the arrests of political leaders and activists.

The political confrontation is not the only problem facing the royalist government. Hours ahead of the strike, Maoist rebels, who have waged a decade-long campaign to turn Nepal into a communist republic, struck at security forces in the south of the country.

Police say the rebels bombed government buildings and fired at security posts in the district town of Malangawa.

Several policemen and rebels were killed in the ensuing fighting. The rebels also claimed responsibility for shooting down a military helicopter.

The crisis in Nepal has deepened since King Gyanendra grabbed power, saying he wanted to crush the Maoist revolt. Both the political parties he dismissed and the rebels have now joined in an informal pact to dislodge the king.

In fact, the four-day shutdown is backed by the rebels, who have called for a cease-fire in Kathmandu to facilitate public participation in a mass rally planned for Saturday. Party leaders say engaging the rebels will help bring them into the political mainstream.