KATHMANDU: Boom! A young policeman in blue fatigues jumps as the bomb explodes, echoing in the narrow streets and alleys of the Charkhal quarter in Nepal’s capital. A colleague standing nearby laughs at his fear but none of the small group of police move from the shelter of the three-storey building onto the main street. It is mid-afternoon and the road in front of them should be filled with honking motorbikes, cruising taxis and pedestrians, many hurrying to the nearby land registry office. But the street is silent save for the mechanical whirr of the army’s metre-high, khaki coloured, bomb-disposal vehicle that rolls slowly past after another successful mission. “We got a call that there was a bomb here,” says another police officer, holding a walkie-talkie and waiting for the ‘all-clear’ signal. “My house is just over there,” says a reporter, pointing. “Can I go?” “We can’t let a foreigner go,” the policeman answers. “A Nepali yes, because Nepali lives aren’t worth much. Everyday, 20 or 25 of us die in the hills.”

Those hills appeared much closer after the Saturday’s attacks by Maoist rebels on police posts in and around the heavily guarded Kathmandu Valley, which has been largely spared the blood-letting of a decade-old uprising that has left roughly 12,000 people dead.

The most shocking was an assault by dozens of rebels on the police post at Thankot, the major road entrance to the Valley, which is home to more than two million people and Nepal’s government and business hub. The Maoists, many of them reportedly arriving on a public bus, swarmed the post at shift change and just minutes after a power cut. At least 10 police officers were slaughtered and the rebels grabbed guns and ammunition and sacked a nearby government office before fleeing into the hills chanting revolutionary slogans, reported the daily Kathmandu Post.

Another group of about 20 Maoists killed at least one police officer across the valley in Bhaktapur during another evening raid. Six officers and one civilian were wounded. Other bombs exploded at a number of municipal offices around Kathmandu and at the family house of Chief of Army Staff Pyar Jung Thapa. The attackers hit just days after authorities vowed army and police in the capital would be on high alert 24 hours a day until municipal elections on Feb. 8. While the Maoists had resumed killing and looting in their home base of west Nepal immediately after ending their ceasefire on Jan. 3, the capital had been peaceful. Saturday’s events seemed to signal: ‘we can do it in Kathmandu too’.

Soldiers managed to defuse Friday afternoon’s bomb but Saturday’s attacks were the capital’s worst since King Gyanendra fired his appointed prime minister and took power in a bloodless coup on Feb. 1, 2005.

The monarch has refused to cancel the upcoming polls, which he promised last year seemingly to soothe many critics in the international community.

An uneasy alliance of seven political parties that won 90 per cent of votes in the last parliamentary election is actively boycotting the polls while the Maoists, who launched their armed struggle in Feb. 1996 to end monarchy and injustice against disadvantaged groups like women and Dalits (so-called untouchables) have pledged to disrupt them.

In 2005, the army estimated the rebels’ strength to be 6,000-7,000 hardcore fighters, 20,000-25,000 militia and about 100,000 sympathisers. They are said to control up to 80 per cent of the countryside, where the majority of Nepalis live.—Dawn/The Guardian News Service

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