Nepal's Maoists hand over control of ex-rebel army

Nepal's Maoists formally relinquished control of their People's Liberation Army on Saturday, more than four years after ending a bloody insurgency.

The leader of the former guerrillas, now the main opposition party, handed control of 19,000 soldiers confined to cantonments around Nepal since the war ended in 2006 to a cross-party committee set up to decide their fate.

The handover will make little practical difference to the soldiers, who remain in the camps for the time being.

But it is seen as a crucial step towards resolving the fate of thousands of men and women whose lives have been on hold since the end of the war.

The peace agreement that ended Nepal's decade-long civil war says the former fighters should be allowed to join the state security forces, but resistance from the military and political disagreements have delayed the process.

Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, or The Fierce One, said he hoped their future would soon be settled.

"The Maoist party is committed to taking the peace process to a conclusion by implementing the peace agreement," he told political leaders, foreign envoys and soldiers at the Shaktikhor cantonment 175 kilometres (110 miles) south of Kathmandu.

"The decision to bring the combatants under the control of the special committee is one of the key moves towards implementing the agreement."

The continued existence of two armies in Nepal is viewed as an obstacle to lasting peace in the troubled country, which has been without a government for nearly seven months.

Former Maoist fighter Sushma Sunar, 24, told AFP she and her fellow soldiers wanted to leave the camps and get on with their lives.

"We fought for the good of the Nepalese people. Now we are ready to work for peace and democracy in this country," she added.

The Maoists fought a decade-long war against the state in which at least 16,000 people died. They went on to win landmark elections in 2008 and abolish the country's 240-year-old Hindu monarchy.

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