Blast-hit Nepal steps up security ahead of polls


Nepal authorities stepped up security on Tuesday after a string of bomb blasts ahead of crucial elections expected to lead to the abolition of the Himalayan nation's centuries-old monarchy.

Ex-rebel Maoists blamed backers of King Gyanendra for the blasts, accusing them of attempting to derail Thursday's polls to elect an assembly whose first task will be to turn Nepal into a republic and write a new constitution.

"It's a last-ditch effort by royalists and Hindu fundamentalists to disrupt the constituent assembly elections," said Ananta, deputy commander of the Maoist's People's Liberation Army, who goes by one name.

But government officials said they were ready to deal with any violence in the impoverished nation, one of the world's 10 poorest.

The bombings "are a tactic to instil fear in people," Modraj Dottel, Nepal's home ministry spokesman, told AFP.

"We've deployed special teams including bomb disposal experts to sensitive areas where frequent bombings are taking place," he said. "We've enough security and we're prepared."

Helicopter patrols have been launched nationwide for unusual movements of people and tens of thousands of extra police officers are in place.

The polls, the climax of a 2006 peace deal that ended a decade-long Maoist revolt aimed at ousting the monarchy, will be the most watched in Nepal's history with some 800 international observers, including ex-US president Jimmy Carter and a 120-strong European Union team.

The vote's run-up has seen daily clashes between supporters of all major parties, and on Monday, bombings in the capital and the ethnically tense southern town of Birginj injured at least 12 people.

But the former rebels, whose insurgency left 13,000 dead, have promised to accept the poll results -- if they consider them to be fair.

"Given a choice we would like peace. Our form of struggle has changed," the ultra-leftist's second-in-command Baburam Bhattarai told AFP.

"But if they betray us, people will be forced to resist again. The army is still controlled by the king. If they try to stop us from implementing revolutionary change in the society, we will have to resist that."

Analysts say the biggest underlying question is whether the poll outcome gives the Maoists enough political clout to keep them within the democratic system.

The Maoists' transition from feared guerrilla outfit to mainstream party has not been smooth, and they have come in for a barrage of criticism for their conduct in the lead-up to the polls.

The group, including its feared Young Communist League, has been accused of using threats and violence to intimidate voters.

Analysts say it is still a guess how well the Maoists will fare in the polling for the 601-seat assembly.

The country's biggest parties, the centrist Nepali Congress and the leftist Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) -- which is communist in name only -- are expected to grab the lion's share of seats.

King Gyanendra has been keeping a low profile ahead of the polls. Gyanendra was never a popular ruler, having assumed the throne in 2001 after much-loved former king Birendra and most of the rest of the family were massacred by a drunk, drug-fuelled crown prince.

His survival of the "palace massacre" has led many Nepalis to believe he was somehow complicit. He lost even more support when he dismissed the government and assumed absolute power to fight the Maoists.

Gyanendra has already been stripped of most of his authority but die-hard royalists have warned his ouster could plunge Nepal back into civil war. (AFP)