KATMANDU, Nepal – Nepal's embattled King Gyanendra on Monday reinstated the lower house of Parliament and expressed his sympathies for those killed in weeks of pro-democracy protests, trying to avoid a bloody showdown between demonstrators and his security forces.
"We extend our heartfelt condolences for all those who have lost their lives in the people's movement," Gyanendra said in the address, broadcast on state television and radio.
Nepal's largest opposition party welcomed the king's comments, and the sounds of celebratory shouts and whistles could be heard in the streets of Katmandu minutes after the 11:30 p.m. speech.
Gyanendra "has addressed the spirit of the people's movement" and met the demands of the main opposition seven-party alliance, said Ram Chandra Poudel, general secretary of the Nepali Congress.
The reinstatement of Parliament was a key demand of the alliance, which has been leading the demonstrations that have brought the Himalayan country to the brink of chaos.
"We are confident the nation will forge ahead toward sustainable peace, progress, full-fledged democracy and national unity," the king said in the brief address.
Parliament's lower house holds real elected power in Nepal's constitution. The upper house is largely symbolic.
Gyanendra's speech came on the eve of the largest planned protest yet, with hundreds of thousands of people expected.
Earlier Monday, foreign diplomats had been struggling to cut a deal to end the crisis.
Countries with strong ties to Nepal were encouraging Gyanendra to give the opposition alliance what it is demanding, including the reinstatement of Parliament, and an apology for 14 demonstrators killed by security forces over three weeks of protests, said a diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
Another person familiar with the discussions, also speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the negotiations, adding that India was among those in the forefront of the talks.
Gyanendra remained almost completely silent during the crisis, hidden behind the walls of his heavily guarded central Katmandu palace and kept in power because of the loyalty of his security forces.
Protests have rocked Katmandu and many other towns for nearly three weeks, and police have clashed repeatedly with demonstrators demanding Gyanendra relinquish the absolute power he seized 14 months ago when he dismissed an interim government, saying he needed to bring order to the chaotic political situation and crush a Maoist insurgency.
The protests and general strike have paralyzed the country, with the capital locked down by repeated curfews, roads blocked by protesters, and food and fuel increasingly scarce.
Nepal's main political parties and the Maoist insurgents, who have seized much of the countryside in a decade of violence, launched campaign on April 6.
Pro-democracy protesters again faced off against security forces in Katmandu on Monday.
Protests also were held in dozens of towns across Nepal, according to local news reports, with demonstrators blocking roads with barricades of chopped-down trees and burning tires.
In the western resort town of Pokhara, 10,000 protesters marched through the heart of the town, including many government workers.
Nepalese security forces in a mountain town fought back an attack by Maoist guerrillas that left six people dead.
Five Maoist rebels and a government soldier died after the guerrillas attacked security bases and government buildings overnight in the north-central town of Chautara, sparking gunbattles that lasted into Monday morning, said a statement from Defense Ministry Spokesman Indiresh Dahal.
Amid the increasing chaos, the U.S. State Department earlier Monday ordered all non-emergency embassy staff and family members to leave Nepal, according to an embassy spokesman, Robert Hugins. He said about half of the mission's staff would leave.
Ambassador James F. Moriarty also recommended that all Americans in Nepal should consider leaving "because of the uncertain security conditions," an embassy statement said. China, Australia and Denmark are among the countries that have also warned people against traveling to the kingdom.
Meanwhile, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets Monday at a group of protesters marching along the northern edge of the Ring Road, which circles the city. At least seven people were injured, independent Kantipur radio reported.
Protests have intensified since Friday, when Gyanendra offered to let the opposition alliance nominate a prime minister and form a government — on Saturday, one march even got within a mile of the palace.
Opposition leaders and the Maoists rejected that offer because it did not include the return of Parliament and creation of a special assembly to write a new constitution that could limit or eliminate the monarchy.