by Chiranjibi Paudyal
American Reporter Correspondent
February 18, 2002
DEATH TOLL HITS 200 IN NEPAL CLASH; MAOISTS ABANDON 40 HEADLESS BODIES
KATHMANDU, Nepal, Feb. 18, 2002 -- In the deadliest attack since the launch of a Maoist insurgency here in 1996, more than 200 people - including over 100 police and other security personnel - were killed Sunday morning in the Achham district 600 kilometer west of Kathmandu, defense officials said.
A large number of Maoist guerrillas attacked a district headquarters - a semi-public, poorly fortified compound of barracks and government buildings - at Mangalsen around midnight from all sides, and by dawn Sunday at least 100 members of Nepali security forces, including 48 soldiers, 49 policemen and four other officials, including the chief district officer and an intelligence officer, were dead.
The rebels, who are trying to establish a communist-style people's republic to replace the British-style democracy in Nepal, set ablaze all the government offices in the headquarters compound, and when the security forces rallied to put out the fires they were attacked "from all sides," the officials said.
The security forces and an estimated 1,000 guerillas exchanged automatic weapons fire for almost nine hours, fighting into the daytime on Sunday morning. The Maoists left after killing almost all the army soldiers in the headquarters district. The Maoists have reportedly acquired most of their automatic weapons from dead policemen in a series of clashes over the past several years.
Eleven security personnel injured in the incident were flown to Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, for treatment, officials said.
Though the security forces found only three bodies of Maoists at the scene, it is believed that a large number of rebels were also killed in the heavy exchange of gunfire, a spokesman for the Nepali Defence Ministry said.
After visiting the site, a television reporter said, "over 100 bodies of the Maoist terrorists were carried by the Maoists in many bamboo baskets." That observation was also confirmed by eyewitnesses.
"There is no bamboo basket in the district headquarters and neighboring villages, as almost all the baskets were taken by the rebels to carry the bodies of the dead [Maoists]," one eyewitness said. Officials have not confirmed the number of deaths on the rebel side but say at least 100 were killed.
The television reporter said that he saw about 40 headless bodies in the gutted Sanfebagar airport, which is very close to the district headquarters. Maoists cut off the heads of their dead comrades and take with them so that government forces cannot recognize them. The rebels destroyed the airport and terminal building but no passengers were injured since it happened at night, when there are few visitors.
At least 22 policemen guarding the airport were also killed.
"The number of dead to the Maoists side is also very high," a ruling Nepali Congress member of Parliament representing the district said.
Almost all the government offices except the district cottage industry and accounting office were totally destroyed, and the district headquarters was on fire and engulfed in smoke. Telephone lines were severed.
Some teams of Nepali security forces reached the site and declared the situation under control, a statement from the Home Ministry said. The teams were delayed by the mountainous terrain and bad weather, officials explained.
The rebels are believed to have recently planted bombs in many districts, almost all of which were disposed of by security forces over the last few days.
The rebel bombs did explode at a land office and an income tax office in Kathmandu, where about a dozen persons were injured. The rebels also destroyed the Lukla airport, the main entry point for climbers headed to Mt. Everest, the highest peak in the world.
Nepal is famed for Sherpa mountain-climbing guides who have led more than 1,000 climbers to the top of Mount Everest, the world's tallest peak.
Last week, the State Department warned American citizens on travel to Nepal, advising them not to go to the most mountainous and rural areas where most of the rebel attacks have occurred.
During his visit to Nepal in the last week of January, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell voiced support for the kingdom's government, saying, "We fully acknowledge the government of Nepal's right to protect its citizens and institutions from terrorist attacks."
Powell's comments were welcomed as strong moral support for the government's fight against the insurgents, but it was unclear whether the country's problems would win America's focus in the War on Terror.
The government of Nepal declared a state of emergency Nov. 26 of last year and ordered the mobilization of the Nepalese Army following a series of violent attacks by Maoists who broke a four-month-old cease-fire agreement with the country's rulers.
The recent attacks by Maoists have now claimed the lives of over 800 people since last Nov. 23, including more than 600 rebels who were killed in clashes with the army and police in several parts of the country. Much of the fighting was centered in the Syangja, Dang and Surkhet districts in western Nepal and in Solokhumbu, a Himalayan district in the northeast.
The true death toll may never be known because the Maoists invariably carry the dead bodies of their comrades away after clashes and bury them in forests or sink them in rivers without informing family members. Many suspect the figure is far higher.
According to official figures, more than 2,400 people have died -- most of them rebels -- since the Maoists insurgents took up arms in 1996 to establish a North Korean-style Communist Republic that many people here believe is a daydream in the open, democratic and liberalized world of the 21st Century.
The Maoists have been declared a terrorist organization. Much like the Shining Path guerrillas of Peru, they have been waging a bloody war to replace the country's multiparty democracy, established here in 1990 by a populist people's movement after the collapse of communism in the U.S.S.R and Eastern Europe.
The tiny Himalayan kingdom is situated between India to the south and Tibet, run by the Peoples Republic of China to the north.
The new and vastly more bloody attacks come as the world has united against terrorism under American leadership after the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Ironically, the leftist terrorists are raising their army in the birthplace of Lord Buddha, the apostle of peace.
Corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency, unemployment and poverty in Nepal have helped the Maoists increase their organization in the remote and underdeveloped parts of western Nepal, where the literacy rate is very low in comparison to other parts of the country.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, with per capita incomes of $220 and a literacy rate of less than 50 percent.
The Maoists have presented a 40-point demand, including the establishment of Communist style republic, an interim government to hold elections for the constituent assembly to write a new republican constitution and other issues, mainly related to Indian-Nepalese relations.
Though their strength is not clear, it is believed that the Maoists have around 5,000 trained soldiers. They have been able to collect weapons and funds during the last five years due to frequent changes in government and a relatively flexible policy toward them on the part of the government and other political parties.
The Maoists have forcefully collected money from businessmen, private schools, individuals, teachers, politicians and other residents, and they collect grains from the poor farmers in the nation's remote areas, where there is famine and an increasing scarcity of grains every year.
Fundamental rights except for the provision of habeas corpus were suspended by the declaration of a state of emergency, but the government through a ordinance has said the main target of the emergency is to end terrorism so others can exercise their rights.
Though the number of Nepalese soldiers is comparatively low, Nepal's army is renowned throughout the world and they have enhanced the prestige of the nation as members of the peacekeeping forces of the United Nations.
Like the American government's determination to destroy al-Qaida, Maoists are facing a determined Nepalese army.
"The terrorism will be rooted out," Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba vowed recently.
"Unless they surrender weapons there is no possibility of talks with them," Bahadur told the press last week.
The government has the strong support from all sides, including the King, political parties, civil society and the major donor and neighboring countries, including the United States and India. The United States, India, the European Union and other major donor countries say they fully support the government's move to stop terrorism.
The anti-terrorist campaign launched by the United States may be a blessing in disguise for Nepal if it can help end more than five years of turmoil and mayhem. There is virtually no support from any side here for the Maoists and they have nowhere to go from Nepal, a landlocked country, neither to China nor India.
"How is it possible in a landlocked country like Nepal to continue attacks when neither India nor China support them?" asked an opposition party member on a television program in Kathmandu last week.
"It is a matter of shame to be a communist in the birthplace of communism in eastern European countries, but in Nepal, where communists are killing people in the 21st Century, it is a matter of shame to the whole world advocating democracy," said a professor of political science at Nepal University.