Nepal army chief sacked (Lead)

May 3rd, 2009 - 3:16 pm ICT by IANS  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, May 3 (IANS) In what is being seen as a rebuff to India, Nepal’s ruling Maoist party Sunday sacked the chief of the army, General Rookmangud Katawal, rejecting New Delhi’s repeated advice not to meddle with the army’s chain of command.

Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda replaced the 61-year-old controversial general — just three months before the latter was due to retire — with senior army officer Lt. Gen. Kul Bahadur Khadka, who is regarded as being close to the former guerrillas.

“The cabinet has decided to remove the army chief since he could not provide a satisfactory explanation to the three charges levied by the government,” Maoist Information and Communications Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara, who is also the spokesman of the government, said after the cabinet meeting.

The army chief was asked last month why he had continued recruitment despite the government’s halt order and gone to court to challenge the retirement of eight brigadier-generals. He was also rapped over the army pulling out of the National Games last month after the Maoist combatants too decided to take part in them.

The move ends a nearly two month-long impasse that crippled the nation, parliament and the fragile peace process but triggers a fresh crisis, both at home and with the international community, especially India.

New Delhi had sent its ambassador to Nepal Rakesh Sood to meet Prachanda four times within the last fortnight, asking him not to take any unilateral step about the beleaguered army chief.

But the hardliners in the Maoist party, who have been growing increasingly hostile to India, pressured the party into finally firing Katawal even though the other members of the five-party ruling alliance boycotted the cabinet meeting Sunday to show their disapproval.

The Nepal Army began an emergency meeting while high alert was announced at the office of President Ram Baran Yadav, whom the Maoists had been accusing of trying to stop the firing and impose presidential rule.

Besides its own allies turning hostile, the Maoist-led government will now also have to contend with protests by the main opposition party, former prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s Nepali Congress (NC).

The NC rushed its senior leaders, former premier Sher Bahadur Deuba and Sushil Koirala, to hold consultations with the president.

The firing of the army chief will also have an adverse effect on the army. Though the Nepal Army has been vigorously rejecting reports that it was planning coup, the Maoists’ ambitious plan to merge their guerrilla army, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), with the state troops, is bound to be affected in the long run.

Last month, the Maoist government tried to retire eight senior army officers who moved court to block the move.

The court decision, expected this month, will play a major role in the unfolding army drama.

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