Tens of thousands of Nepalis defied a curfew to protest Thursday in the largest show of discontent with King Gyanendra since demonstrations against his royal dictatorship began more than two weeks ago. Security forces responded by fatally shooting three protesters.

The nearly two dozen demonstrations, which brought as many as 100,000 people into the streets around the capital Katmandu, ranged from festive pro-democracy rallies to angry riots of young men who lit bonfires and hurled bricks at police. Some demanded the death of the king, whose government appears increasingly unable to control the country.

By midday, soldiers were patrolling in armored vehicles, and at least one police post had been attacked, its windows smashed by bricks.

Gyanendra came under more diplomatic pressure on Thursday to cede the power he seized 14 months ago from an interim government.

Despite a curfew imposed to head off protests, an alliance of seven opposition parties that has organized 15 days of protests and a general strike managed to draw as many as 100,000 people into the streets, according to estimates by police, organizers and witnesses.

While there have been bloodier days since the protests began, much of Nepal's life — political and economic — is centered in Katmandu, and Thursday's demonstrations dwarfed all earlier ones in the capital.

Early in the day, residents in the city center — where a heavy police presence kept most protesters at bay — whistled and banged plates on their rooftops. Cell phone text messages encouraged Katmandu's 1.5 million residents to rally at the city's edge.

Many of those protests turned violent as demonstrators parried with officers throughout the day, often tossing back tear gas canisters to cheers from supporters watching from rooftops.

The worst violence came on the city's western edge, where police trying to keep more than 10,000 protesters from reaching the ring road opened fire with tear gas, rubber bullets and finally live ammunition.

Witnesses said the shooting in Kalanki began when a senior police officer drew his pistol and shot a protester in the head, an act followed by gunfire from police and soldiers.

The senior offices "aimed straight for the (protesters)," said Ankul Shresthra, a 28-year-old throwing bottles at police in Kalanki. Other witnesses confirmed his account, and protesters showed reporters fresh bullet casings.

Doctors at Katmandu's Model hospital said three people were killed in Kalanki, and that police took the bodies away. More than 40 people were in critical condition, most with head injuries. Thursday's shootings brought the death toll to 13 since the demonstrations began.

Hundreds more were reportedly injured around the city, including 13 police officers whose clearly exhausted colleagues were, by the end of the day, being forced against demonstrators by senior officers swatting them with rattan poles.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal with the king Thursday.

"I am very hopeful that very shortly some sort of announcement will be made by him which will help considerably defuse the situation," the envoy Karan Singh said after the meeting.

Diplomats said palace officials had indicated the king might make some concessions — possibly appointing a prime minister or reinstating parliament.

The diplomats spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing public comments would compromise their ability to work with the government.