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High alert in Kathmandu as constitution expires midnight

Riot police dragged away dozens of people protesting near parliament and the government ordered high security in the turbulent capital on Saturday, with Nepal's constitution due to expire at midnight and top parties still at loggerheads over infusing fresh life into it.

world Updated: May 28, 2011 15:43 IST

Riot police dragged away dozens of people protesting near parliament and the government ordered high security in the turbulent capital on Saturday, with Nepal's constitution due to expire at midnight and top parties still at loggerheads over infusing fresh life into it.

With Nepal's parliament facing dissolution at midnight, the government's frantic bid to extend its tenure by a year ran into a wall Saturday with the opposition parties refusing to allow the proposal to be tabled.

Defying a morning drizzle, human rights activists, former MPs, the relatives of people killed or disabled during the pro-democracy movement of 2006 and women began to gather near parliament, demanding a new constitution and flaying the three bickering parties for turning a blind eye to the people who elected them.

The government this week banned all rallies within 50 metre of parliament and riot police swooped down on former legislators, herding them into vans.

Nepal's first pro-people constitution was to have been promulgated by May 28, 2010 as the cornerstone of a peace accord that ended a decade of communist insurgency.

However, the 601-member parliament, elected to write the new constitution, failed to deliver with its three largest parties - the Communists, Maoists and Nepali Congress (NC) - remaining tangled in a protracted battle for power.

At this time last year, when the interim constitution was to expire, plunging the country into an unprecedented vacuum, the three buried the hatchet in a midnight drama and extended the life of the statute by a year.

However, records showed parliament sat for only 95 minutes during the extended year, leaving the new constitution still incomplete.

Now, fresh doom threatens Nepal at midnight, when the term of the interim constitution will end and with it, that of parliament and the government as well.

The three parties are back to where they were last year, still squabbling while trying to push for another extension.

"We are not thinking negatively," said NC legislator Radheshyam Adhikari, as his party called an internal meeting Saturday to plan an emergency strategy. "We are optimistic that the term of the interim constitution will be extended."

This time, the main hindrance to an agreement among the parties is the NC's insistence that the Maoists hand over to the government the arms of its guerrilla army, the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

But the demand has been flatly rejected by the former rebels.

"We are not ready to surrender the arms we obtained through the blood and sweat of our martyred comrades," said Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who has also refused to give up his war name Prachanda - meaning awesome - even five years after signing the peace accord.

While Prime Minister Jhala Nath Khanal is proposing a further one-year extension, the move is bound to drag the government into legal battles as Nepal's Supreme Court ruled this week that the government had acted wrongly by extending the life of the interim constitution and parliament in 2010.

The apex court said also said if the government tried once more to extend the deadline, it would be subject to judicial review.

Some of the opposition parties are calling for Khanal's resignation while the royalists are asking that parliament be dissolved Saturday midnight and fresh elections announced to appoint a new parliament.

With mobs seeking to incite violence and setting ablaze vehicles during a general strike Friday, Home Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara held consultations with the security forces, asking them to remain on high alert.

Nearly 7,000 police personnel have been deployed in Kathmandu city alone.