KATHMANDU: Nepal police yesterday fired into a crowd of protesters trying to block a key border checkpoint and killed an Indian civilian as anger over a new constitution boiled over. The violence came hours after police forcibly broke up the blockade in the southern town of Birgunj on the border with India that has led to crippling fuel shortages and cut off access to other vital supplies in the landlocked Himalayan nation.
“Police warned the protesters to disperse but they did not listen, compelling security forces to open fire,” said Nepal police spokesman Kamal Singh Bam. “An Indian national was wounded and died after being taken to hospital.” Four police were injured in clashes at the checkpoint in Birgunj, Bam said.
Bam could not confirm if any other civilians were wounded. A local party leader involved in the protests said seven people had been hurt, including a 11-year-old boy struck by a rubber bullet. “When police fired rubber bullets at the demonstrators, one hit the child on the head, leaving him bleeding,” said Shiva Patel, general secretary of the regional Sadbhawana party.
Earlier, police used batons to disperse ethnic minority protesters angered by Nepal’s new constitution, which they say will leave them politically marginalized. Patel said hundreds more protestors had arrived at the scene after police beat up demonstrators and burned down their tents to force an end to the blockade that began on September 24.
“We were outnumbered then but now hundreds more have descended on the bridge and blocked it again,” he said. The protesters, from Nepal’s Madhesi ethnic minority, want the government to change the constitution because they say a new federal structure it lays out will mean they are under-represented in parliament. The latest violence dashed hopes of a compromise raised when the government and protesting parties held weekend talks. Madhesi leaders announced a halt to negotiations. “We will not sit at a table and hold talks with the government until the police stop attacking our people,” said Laxman Lal Karna, vice-chair of the Sadbhawana party.
More than 40 people have been killed in clashes between police and people protesting against the constitution, which was introduced in September after a deadly earthquake pushed warring political parties to reach agreement.
Ties with India sour
India, which has repeatedly urged dialogue, said it was “deeply concerned” by yesterday’s violence. “Issues facing Nepal are political in nature and cannot be resolved by force,” its foreign ministry said in a statement. “Causes underlying the present state of confrontation need to addressed by the Government of Nepal credibly and effectively.”
The fuel crisis has soured ties between Nepal and its powerful neighbor, with authorities in Kathmandu accusing New Delhi of imposing an “unofficial blockade” to show its dissatisfaction with the new constitution. Nepal has long sourced all its fuel from India, but the movement of cargo across Birgunj and other Indian border checkpoints had slowed to a crawl since the blockade began.
New Delhi denies the charge and has urged dialogue with the protesting Madhesis, who have close cultural, linguistic and family ties to Indians living across the border. There was no immediate sign of fuel trucks entering Nepal, although a customs official told AFP more than 100 empty Indian trucks left stranded in Nepal due to the blockade had crossed over to India during the brief period the border was open.
The disruption prompted Nepal to sign its first-ever fuel supply agreement with China last week, ending a decades-long monopoly by India. Beijing also agreed to donate 1.3 million liters of petrol to Nepal to try to ease shortages. The blockade has also forced international aid organizations to halt relief operations for tens of thousands of quake victims just weeks before winter. The constitution was meant to cement peace and bolster Nepal’s transformation to a democratic republic after decades of political instability and a 10-year Maoist insurgency. -AFP