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After Pashupatinath, Maoists lock horns with army

After dragging Nepal's revered Hindu shrine of Pashupatinath into a furious dispute, Nepal's Maoist government has now locked horns with the republic's army, triggering a fresh battle over new recruitment.
By Sudeshna Sarkar | IANS, Kathmandu
UPDATED ON JAN 05, 2009 05:01 PM IST

After dragging Nepal's revered Hindu shrine of Pashupatinath into a furious dispute, Nepal's Maoist government has now locked horns with the republic's army, triggering a fresh battle over new recruitment.

The former guerrilla party, which during its 10-year insurrection regarded the state army as its arch enemy, is now once again locked in a fierce verbal war with its former bête noir as Maoist Defence Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal on Monday warned that the government could take action against army chief Gen Rookmangud Katawal.

"The army does not control the government; it is the government that controls the army," Badal told the Maoist media on Monday at a programme in Chitwan district in southern Nepal.

"If the army chief goes against the constitution, the government will take action against him," Badal warned.

The warning came after Katawal on Sunday said the army would go ahead with fresh recruitments and, without naming the Maoists, criticised them for trying to drag it into a political dispute.

The seeds of the controversy were sown late last year when the army issued an advertisement, seeking to recruit over 2,400 people to fill the vacuum left by retirements and resignations.

The army said it was a normal process in accordance with the civil service act and the constitution.

However, the proposed recruitment ran into stiff opposition from the Maoists' guerrilla army, the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA says any new induction would violate the peace agreement signed between the Maoists and the government two years ago that resulted in the end of the civil war.

PLA leaders have warned that if the army begins to make fresh recruitment, the PLA would also follow suit.

The growing clamour has caused the UN to step in.

The UN Mission in Nepal, a political mission of the world organisation that has been party to the peace negotiations, last month issued a statement that any new recruitment by the army or PLA would go against the comprehensive peace agreement.

The Maoist defence minister said the army has been ordered to stop all recruitment.

However, the Nepal Army seems to be on a collision course with the government with Katawal saying recruitment procedures had already begun and could not be halted.

The Maoist minister subsequently issued a warning on Monday, saying that if Katawal is proved to have been making anti-constitutional statements, he would face action.

There is growing speculation that Katawal, once considered close to deposed King Gyanendra, would be removed by the Maoist government.

However, the Maoists have denied any plans to replace Katawal. Also, the main opposition party, former prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala's Nepali Congress, has warned that it would fight any move to oust the army chief.

The new dispute comes at a time the government is floundering to keep its commitment to the PLA.

Though the peace pact pledged to merge the PLA with the Nepal Army, even two years later, a succession of new governments have failed to begin the difficult process.

Over 19,000 PLA combatants have been leading a corralled life inside cantonments since 2006, facing extreme hardship and a bleak future.

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