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Nepal government, rebels to hold peace talks

Maoist leader talking
The Maoists appear publicly for the first time since 1996  


KATHMANDU, Nepal -- A Nepali government team is due to meet Maoist rebels in Kathmandu for the first formal direct contact between the two sides since 1996.

The landmark peace talks are aimed at ending the Himalayan kingdom's bloody insurgency, which has claimed over 1,800 lives in the past five years. Maoist rebels took up arms against the constitutional monarchy in early 1996.

The talks come five weeks after Sher Bahadur Deuba was elected as the troubled kingdom's prime minister and issued an invitation to the rebels for negotiations.

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They also follow a wave of attacks by the rebels on police posts, killing dozens of security personnel in an upsurge of violence after the June 1 massacre of King Birendra and eight other royal family members by an alcohol-fuelled crown prince Dipendra.

The rebels have agreed to a truce and exchanged dozens of prisoners as a goodwill gesture ahead of the talks.

The moves have raised hopes of ending the violence that has racked the poverty-stricken nation's economy, slowed industrial production and delayed development projects.

People's Republic

Chief rebel negotiator Krishna Bahadur Mahara said on Wednesday that he would press for a one-party communist republic in place of constitutional monarchy for Hindu Nepal.

The rebels are demanding an interim government to prepare a new constitution for the establishment of the "people's republic" in the nation visited every year by tens of thousands of Western tourists.

The rebels have said foreign visitors are not their targets. Nepal is home to some of the world's lofty mountain peaks including Mount Everest and tourism revenue of $168 million in 1999 contributed nearly four percent of GDP.

Landlocked Nepal, perched in the central Himalayas between China and India, established a constitutional monarchy and a multi-party democracy after weeks of violent street protests in early 1990.

"There cannot be any compromise against the monarchy," Prime Minister Deuba said at a meeting on Wednesday.

The Kathmandu Post urged the government to try to accommodate as many Maoist demands as possible and asked the rebels to be resilient.

Mainstream political parties late on Wednesday asked the government as well as the rebels to show "utmost seriousness" to make the talks successful.

Last year, a government minister met the rebels informally but efforts for formal dialogue were derailed by a row over the release of two jailed Maoist members.

Analysts said Thursday's meeting alone could not resolve the fast growing Maoist insurgency.

The rebels have proposed a second and third round of meetings to be held on September 10 and 25.

Reuters contributed to this report.






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