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500 Maoists die in clash with Nepal army

Kathmandu, March 21 (Reuters): Nepali troops killed 500 Maoist rebels in a 12-hour battle today, the army said, in what would be the bloodiest single clash since the revolt against the country’s constitutional monarchy began in 1996.

Three groups of rebels stormed a state bank, a jail and government buildings in a coordinated attack on Beni, the capital of Myagdi district in the west of the Hindu kingdom and a Maoist stronghold.

Reinforcements, including night-flying helicopters were rushed to the remote area, but poor communications meant details were still very sketchy, the army said, adding 18 soldiers and policemen had also been killed.

Another Maoist force attacked an airport at a small town south of Kathmandu popular with tourists visiting a local wildlife sanctuary, but there were no reports of deaths or major damage there.

“We believe more than 500 rebels might have died in the (Beni) battle,” army spokesperson Colonel Deepak Kumar Gurung said in Kathmandu.

“It is based on what our soldiers saw — they saw the Maoists falling and being dragged off by other Maoists.”

If true, it would be the bloodiest battle since more than 200 rebels, soldiers and policemen died almost two years ago when guerrillas overran security posts in western Nepal.

The fighting started when the Maoists simultaneously attacked the army’s Kalidas battalion post responsible for constructing roads in the district, the Myagdi district administration office, district development committee and district police office last night, the army spokesperson said.

There was no immediate rebel comment on the Beni battle, which raged from midnight into today afternoon, and no independent confirmation of the toll. Both sides routinely overstate enemy casualties and understate their own.

The Maoists, fighting to replace the monarchy with a one-party communist state, often target banks for cash to buy smuggled weapons, as well as jails to free captured comrades.

Outgunned by the army, they rely on sheer numbers and human shields from dragooned local villagers to overrun security posts, human rights groups say. The rebels deny using civilians as human shields or forced stretcher-bearers to carry their dead.

More than 9,000 people, mainly rebels, have been killed in the brutal and bloody revolt. Human rights groups accuse both sides of major abuses, including murder and torture.

Several attempts at peace talks have failed over core issues such as the ultimate fate of the monarchy, now in the hands of unpopular King Gyanendra after popular former King Birendra and several members of the royal family were massacred in 2001.

Gyanendra also faces sustained and destabilising protests from mainstream political parties after sacking the elected Prime Minister in 2002 and delaying national elections due the same year, saying the rebellion meant it was too dangerous for polls.

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