Crisis in Nepal as opposition battles Maoists over army chief

April 21st, 2009 - 8:06 pm ICT by IANS  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, April 21 (IANS) A fresh crisis gripped Nepal and once more threatened to derail the fragile peace process as a new war broke out between the ruling Maoist party and the main opposition with the latter branding the Maoist attempt to fire the army chief as a “systematic attack on constitutional institutions”.

The fate of the chief of Nepal Army, Gen Rookmangud Katawal, hung in balance Tuesday after the Maoist-led government failed to hold a cabinet meeting to discuss the issue.

The 61-year-old general, who is due to retire in August, was chosen by the Maoists as their whipping boy in a bid that is being viewed by many army officials as well as the opposition Nepali Congress as one aimed at weakening the army and replacing its senior officials with its own People’s Liberation Army (PLA) men.

Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda this week asked Katawal to resign voluntarily or face summary dismissal. When the general refused to step down, the government asked him to provide an explanation to three major charges levied against him.

If the explanation is found unsatisfactory, according to the constitution, the army chief can be fired.

He has been asked to explain why the army chose to recruit soldiers despite a government order to stop, why it went to court to challenge the forced retirement of eight brigadier-generals and why it walked out of the National Games last month after the PLA also announced its participation.

While the tightlipped Katawal furnished his explanation to the government Tuesday morning, in an anti-climax, it could not be discussed by the cabinet as the meeting was postponed to Wednesday.

However, the opposition Nepali Congress (NC), led by former prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala, has taken up cudgels on behalf of Katawal.

The NC called an emergency meeting Tuesday and agreed to begin a boycott of parliament till the government revoked the order for an explanation.

“After the judiciary, press and bureaucracy, now the Maoists have attacked the army as the latest move in their systematic campaign against democratic and constitutional institutions,” said Minendra Rizal, NC lawmaker. “It will sabotage the peace process and derail the writing of a new constitution.”

Though the NC began consultations with other parties, including the government’s allies, to block the move, the Maoists however defended their move, saying the army had refused to obey the orders of the executive.

Tension simmered in the capital with reports of the former guerrillas amassing cadres nationwide for a rally Wednesday that would be a show of strength.

Though army officers watched the fight tightlipped, it was clear where their sympathies lay.

“This is a well-planned military manoeuvre,” said retired Brigadier-General Keshav Bahadur Bhandari. “Another 46 senior officers are also nearing retirement. The Maoists may be trying to put their own men in these positions. They may be even considering a PLA man as the army chief.”

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