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Strike shuts down Nepal

Kathmandu, Nov. 11 (Reuters): Nepal shut down today on the first day of a three-day general strike called by Maoist rebels to protest against King Gyanendra’s dismissal of the country’s elected government last month.

The strike came as a government official said soldiers shot dead at least 10 guerrillas in a gunbattle in Baglung district, 350 km west of Kathmandu.

Shops, schools and businesses in the Nepali capital, gateway for thousands of western visitors to the Himalayas, were closed as soldiers with automatic rifles guarded deserted streets. “There has been a total shutdown in the main business district,” said Kathmandu resident Triratna Manandhar. “There is a heavy presence of security personnel around the main market but no tension.”

In some parts of the city, bands of children played football or cricket on deserted streets.

Almost all public transport was off the roads but some taxis were plying the streets with their number plates covered and charging more than double the normal fare. Special coaches with banners marked “Tourists” ferried visitors to and from the airport as international flights operated normally, hotel and airport officials said.

Strike calls by the rebels, who have a presence in all parts of the kingdom but are particularly strong in rural areas, are normally heeded because people fear revenge attacks.

In the latest violence, a government official said soldiers killed at least 10 rebels after the guerrillas ambushed a security patrol at Khara, a rebel stronghold in Baglung district.

“At least 10 Maoists were killed today in a gunbattle after rebels fired at soldiers from forests following the ambush,” he told Reuters, adding two soldiers were wounded in the clash. There was no comment from the Maoists. Independent Kantipur radio said the Maoists killed three people in east Nepal late yesterday but gave no details.

The rebels have been waging an increasingly deadly revolt to install a Communist republic to replace the constitutional monarchy. The government says more than 7,100 people have been killed since the revolt began in 1996. Residents reached by telephone in the cities of Biratnagar in east Nepal and Bhairahawa and Nepalgunj in the west said life there was also disrupted by the strike.

King Gyanendra assumed executive power in October after firing Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who wanted to delay national elections. The elections were set for this week but Deuba sought a delay because of rebel threats to sabotage them.

Gyanendra named a strong royal supporter, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, as interim Prime Minister. Chand has pledged early elections but no date has been set to end the latest political crisis to rack Nepal which is still recovering from last year’s massacre of most of the royal family by a drunken crown prince. The insurgency has racked the impoverished nation's aid-dependent economy. It has crippled tourism, a key source of income, and scared away investors.

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