Pro-Democracy Protester Killed in Nepal

Police shot and killed an anti-government protester Wednesday in southern Nepal as authorities foiled pro-democracy activists' plans to hold a mass rally in the heart of Katmandu and detained dozens of demonstrators.

While tensions eased considerably in Katmandu after a week of protests, there were pro-democracy rallies elsewhere in the Himalayan kingdom and the shooting in the town of Parasi brought the number people killed since the start of the demonstrations to four.

Nepal's seven-party opposition alliance — backed by a separate communist insurgency — is organizing the protests to demand King Gyanendra restore democracy. There have been dozens of clashes between demonstrators and security forces in the past week, the country's worst crisis since Gyanendra seized power 14 months ago.

The king said he needed absolute control of the country to stamp out political corruption and end an anti-monarchy communist insurgency that has left nearly 13,000 people dead in the past decade. Criticism of the king, the government and security forces has been banned, along with independent reporting on the insurgency.

With the nationwide general strike called by the opposition alongside the protests stretching to a week on Wednesday, the government announced it was banning strikes in essential services, such as transport, hospitals and communication, and that violators would be punished.

Also Wednesday, at least 29 journalists were arrested in Katmandu at a protest of the government's crackdown on the media since the king's seizure of power.

In Parasi, 125 miles southwest of Katmandu, an official said hundreds of protesters were pelting police with stones and bricks when the police opened fire with live ammunition, killing one and injuring five.

Authorities imposed a curfew in the town afterward, said the official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The official's account could not be independently verified, although in the past days many demonstrations have ended in street battles between protesters and security forces.

Still, with three other people shot and killed at protests over the weekend and scores beaten, the United Nations on Tuesday said the police and army were using excessive force.

Officials have lifted a curfew in Katmandu that had kept the capital in virtual lockdown for days, although they remained in place in the cities of Pokhara and Bharatpur.

Protesters in Katmandu had planned to converge in the capital's center for a mass rally, defying a ban on demonstrations. But police stopped at least a half-dozen processions of a few hundred people each that were heading toward the Shahid Manch, an open area in the city center where political rallies were held until the government banned such gatherings.

The area was also cordoned off by hundreds off police, who even threatened pedestrians, and some 20 protesters who managed to slip through police lines were promptly arrested.

The opposition intended Wednesday's rally to be the major protest of the past week.

Its alliance with the communist rebels has prompted the government to threaten harsher measures against demonstrators — a fact that "created confusion" and may have scared people away from Wednesday's protest, said Pancha Narayan Maharjan, of the Center for Nepal and Asian Studies.

Across the rest of Katmandu, residents streamed into the streets to work, shop or just enjoy life outside their homes.

Gopal Shrestha was back at his small makeshift roadside stand where he sells sunglasses, relieved he had been able to return to work.

"People inside don't need sunglasses," he said.

Throughout the crisis, Gyanendra has remained mostly silent, spending his days in the resort town of Pokhara, and making just a single statement that called for calm but did not directly address protesters' demands for democracy to be restored.

He was expected to make a major speech Friday, the Nepali new year.

One palace faction is pushing Gyanendra to make an overture to the opposition, said a Western diplomat familiar with the situation. An opposing faction is urging the monarch to stick to his "roadmap" calling for parliamentary elections next year, said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

The country's political parties are likely to reject any elections called on the king's timetable, demanding instead that a special assembly be convened now to write a new constitution, which would likely give Gyanendra only a limited, ceremonial role.

The State Department said this week that the king's decision to impose direct palace rule had been "an abject failure."