Nepal

Maoists clash with police in Nepal general strike

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- Police fire tear gas, use batons

- U.N. human rights office urges restraint

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Nepali police lobbed tear gas and used canes to break up Maoist demonstrations in Kathmandu on Sunday during a general strike called by the former rebels in their biggest protest since quitting government.

Police said they detained at least 70 protesters on vandalism charges. The Maoists said around 100 activists were injured.

The regional Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said Nepalese police had used "excessive force" against the protesters and urged both sides to show restraint.

Demanding a return to power, the Maoists have launched a three-day strike to continue until Tuesday, crippling the Himalayan nation as businesses shut and vehicles stay off the road.

"We used water cannon and baton-charged the protesters after they threw stones and injured 17 officers," police spokesman Bigyanraj Sharma said.

"Twenty-seven vehicles were torched by protesters."

The Maoists say they were "unconstitutionally" forced to resign seven months ago in a row with the president over the sacking of the army chief. The standoff plunged the country into political crisis.

"Today's display of violence was some of the worst on the streets of Kathmandu for several years," Richard Bennett, chief of the United Nations human rights office in Nepal, said.

"Police were observed to use excessive force on the crowd, including inappropriate use of lathis (canes) and tear gas, and even stone-throwing," a statement from the OHCHR said.

Supporters of the former rebels roamed the streets with hammer-and-sickle (communist) flags to enforce the strike across the country.

EFFORTS TO BREAK DEADLOCK FAIL

"Our efforts to break the deadlock with political parties in the government have failed," Maoist chief and former prime minister Prachanda, who still goes by his nom de guerre, said after a party meeting late on Saturday.

Analysts say the standoff between the Maoists and the government has stalled the peace process after the end of a decade-long civil war and slowed the development of one of the world's poorest countries.

Authorities said the strike was unlikely to cause shortages of food and other essential goods because of its short duration.

The Maoists led a coalition government after they emerged as the largest political group in last year's election. But in May Prachanda quit as prime minister after failing to fire the then army chief, who was backed by the president.

The Maoists say the president, whose duties are generally ceremonial, undermined the supremacy of the civilian government by overruling the cabinet.

The Maoists waged a bloody civil war from 1996 but joined the political mainstream under a 2006 peace deal with the government. More than 13,000 people were killed in the conflict.

(Editing by Matthias Williams and Michael Roddy)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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