Angered by the army's refusal to halt recruitment, Nepal's ruling Maoist party began to hire new fighters in its guerrilla army on Tuesday, a move that is bound to rock the fragile peace process and draw the disapproval of the international community.
Nanda Kishore Pun Pasang, the new chief who replaced Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda as head of the Maoists' People's Liberation Army (PLA), has issued a statement, saying that the guerrilla army will start recruiting over 12,000 new fighters from Tuesday, in a bid to fill the positions left vacant due to a United Nations examination almost three years ago.
The PLA is seeking young men and women who are 18, are physically fit and ready to make sacrifices.
The move matches that by the Nepal Army that last year began fresh recruitment in defiance of the peace agreement and censure by the UN.
In 2006, when the Maoist guerrillas signed a pact with the ruling parties to end their 10-year civil war that killed over 13,000 people, both sides pledged not to recruit new personnel in the PLA and the Nepal Army.
However, two years ago, the Nepal Army made fresh recruitment in violation of the peace pact.
Nepal Army spokesman Brigadier Ramindra Chhetri defends the recruitment, saying the army did not hire additional men. It only sought to fill the positions left vacant due to retirements, resignations and casualties in accordance with constitutional provisions and the Public Service Act.
The then Nepali Congress-led government did not object to the recruitment in spite of objections by the UN, that has been invited to monitor the peace process.
But now, with a new Maoist government in place, the army's second bid to recruit has run into trouble, pitting Maoist Defence Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal against army chief Gen Rookmangud Katawal.
While the minister threatened to sack Katawal if the army did not stop hiring, the latter is going ahead with the process.
The dispute took a new turn last month with a rights organisation taking the army to court for violating the peace pact.
Nepal's Supreme Court has stepped into the dispute, asking the army to freeze new recruitments till it resolves the row.
Now the feud has been fanned afresh with the Maoists declaring they too would begin new recruitments since the army had dared to go against the peace pact.
Three years ago, when the Maoists ended their “People's War”, the PLA was cordoned in cantonments supervised by a UN agency, the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN).
UNMIN did a headcount of the guerrilla troops and pruned down the over 31,000-strong PLA to about 19,000.
Now, Pasang says the PLA will hire additional fighters to increase its strength to 31,000.
The PLA anger also stems from a meeting held by the ruling alliance Saturday when the five parties agreed the army recruitment was illegal. Yet, they agreed to let the Nepal Army keep the new recruits it had hired.
With the army continuing recruitment, the fate of the UN-certified 19,000 PLA fighters remains shrouded in uncertainty.
The peace pact had pledged that the two armies would be merged. However, the move is being resisted by the army, which has the backing of some of the major parties of Nepal.