Shortages hit Katmandu

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KATMANDU, Nepal (AP) – The Nepalese capital ran low on fresh food and fuel Sunday because of a general strike that shut down the city, and thousands of angry pro-democracy demonstrators clashed with police firing rubber bullets.

The emboldened opposition urged Nepalis to stop paying taxes to the government of King Gyanendra, who responded by further banning protests on the capital’s outskirts.

Sunday’s pro-democracy rallies across the Himalayan kingdom attracted tens of thousands of people and were the biggest since opponents of Gyanendra’s royal dictatorship began their campaign of protests and a nationwide strike that has cut off Nepal’s cities for 11 days.

The rallies included small protests in Katmandu’s tourist hub and commercial heart – the first in the capital’s center, where rallies are banned.

Still, Gyanendra appeared unready to relinquish power over this mountain kingdom that has long attracted Western hippies in search of Eastern spirituality and mountain climbers looking to scale peaks like Mt. Everest.

His government extended the ban on demonstrations to the outskirts of Katmandu and the suburb of Lalitpur, where many rallies have been held.

In Katmandu, many of the capital’s 1.5 million residents struggled to find everything from fresh vegetables to gasoline.

“I pushed my motorcycle all the way here. I have no choice but to wait for hours to get petrol,” said Sundar Thapa as he lined up at one of the few open gas stations.

Customers could only buy about $4 worth of gasoline, enough for about a gallon. At most stations, signs read: “No petrol, no diesel.”

The prices for what few vegetables could be found have risen fivefold since the strike started April 6, and the prices of chicken and mutton have doubled.

“We have not had a single truck come in the past 11 days. Whatever we are selling was what we had in stock, or grown locally in Katmandu,” vegetable vendor Raj Maharjan said at the city’s Baneswor market.

He had no green vegetables and was running low on potatoes and onions. There also was a scarcity of water buffalo meat, popular with Hindu Nepalis who do not eat cows because they are considered sacred.

Gyanendra seized power in February 2005, saying he needed control to restore political order and end a communist insurgency that has killed nearly 13,000 people in the past decade. The rebels are backing the opposition campaign.

The protests are the worst since Gyanendra’s move, and the opposition sought to increase the pressure Sunday, appealing to Nepalis to stop paying taxes, custom duties, interest on loans from state banks and even their electricity, phone service and water bills with state-run utilities.

They also urged the estimated 1.6 million Nepalese working abroad to stop sending money home. The $1.2 billion in remittances have in large part kept the economy afloat.

Sunday’s biggest rallies took place in two neighborhoods on the outskirts of Katmandu. One attracted 15,000 people and was peaceful.

However, the second, in the Balkhu neighborhood, degenerated into a running battle between protesters and police.

About 10,000 people marched along the ring road skirting Katmandu for hours when riot police massed to stop them. The protesters then charged the officers, who responded with a volley of tear gas and rubber bullets that sent most people fleeing.

But a hardcore group, mainly students, retreated onto the hills overlooking the road, hurling stones and shouting obscenities at police in a skirmish that stretched across terraced rice patties and lasted into the night.

“I’ll find you and kill you in seven generations!” one officer shouted after firing rubber bullets at a protesters about 20 yards away.

The demonstrators responded with an obscene gesture and more rocks.

The opposition said 13 people were wounded by rubber bullets and dozens of others were injured by baton-wielding police. About 30 people were arrested.

Thousands participated in at least a half-dozen others protests in Katmandu, while marches in the cities of Pokhara and Bharatpur attracted about 10,000 people each, officials and Nepali media reported.

Police also arrested about 20 journalists who were protesting to demand press freedom and the release of about a dozen journalists detained in similar demonstration the day before.

In Thamel, the capital’s ordinarily throbbing tourist hub, dozens of shop owners, hotel workers and trekking guides burned tires and taunted police along streets lined with shuttered stores that usually sell trinkets, traditional fabrics and pirated DVDs.

“The king is killing our work, we have not enough customers,” said C.V. Shresthra, a 36-year-old trekking guide.

Tourism is Nepal’s second-largest foreign exchange earner, but visitor numbers have dropped from an estimated 500,000 in 1999 to 275,000 last year.

Four people were arrested at the protest, which attracted dozens of curious backpackers, many of whom snapped photographs.

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