KATMANDU, Nepal – Soldiers opened fire Wednesday on a crowd of thousands of villagers angry about the death of a local woman at an army base in southwestern Nepal, killing six and wounding at least 11, officials said.
The shooting came as Nepal's communist rebels withdrew a blockade of the country's highways, but gave the country's political parties a two-day deadline to begin the process of rewriting the constitution, their leader said.
The rebels had blocked key roads for weeks to support a campaign of anti-monarchy protests by the opposition coalition of seven main political parties, which often resulted in bloody clashes with security forces and left at least 15 people dead.
"We have withdrawn the blockade until the first meeting of the Parliament, taking into consideration positive assurances," rebel leader Prachanda said in the statement.
Versions why the shooting occurred differed dramatically.
Both the military and rights activists agree that thousands of angry civilians marched on the camp in the village of Belbari, angry about the woman's death there the night before.
But while Bhupendra Poudel, the defense ministry spokesman, said the crowd tore down the camp's barbed wire, sought to snatch solders' guns and tried to storm the small base, Kunjan Aryal of the rights group INSEC-Nepal said the villagers were protesting peacefully.
"They were not trying to storm in," he said. "They were simply protesting."
Poudel also said the woman — a suspected Maoist — had been shot when she tried to slip into the base. Aryal, though, said the villagers believed the woman had been raped and killed by the soldiers.
Poudel said 11 villagers had been injured, while Aryal put the total at 29.
Aryal also believed the crowd had been emboldened by the country's political turmoil, when weeks of protests of hundreds of thousands of people forced King Gyanendra to return power to elected officials a few days ago.
"Because of the recent political changes they appear to be bold enough to march up to the army camp and seek justice," said Aryal, adding an INSEC staff member was at the base at the time of the shooting.
Particularly in Katmandu and some larger towns, the status of the Nepal's security forces has dropped significantly because of its backing of the king during the protests and the violence used against demonstrators.
The parties called off their protest campaign Tuesday after King Gyanendra agreed to hand power back to elected officials and reinstate Parliament by Friday.
The rebels initially called the move a betrayal, saying it did not go far enough and tightened their blockade of key highways, leaving cities short of supplies, especially fuel.
Girija Prasad Koirala, nominated by the parties to return as prime minister, appealed to the rebels to withdraw their blockade, pledging to honor their agreements, including to focus on drafting a new constitution.
"The reinstated Parliament's main agenda will be the election of a constitution assembly as per the road map of the parties and their understanding with the Maoists," he said.
It was widely expected that the new constitution would limit the king's role, or even eliminate the monarchy altogether.
The rebel blockade had cut off major transport routes, including the nation's key highway between Katmandu, the capital, and the resort town of Pokhara, witnesses said.
Outside Pokhara, about 125 miles west of Katmandu, suspected Maoists torched a taxi, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The rebels also blocked another highway in southern Nepal, along with the main supply route from the border with India.
An Associated Press reporter at Bharatpur, about 90 miles southwest of the capital, said only 30 vehicles, mostly trucks, had left for Katmandu on Wednesday.
In western Nepal, a man died from injuries inflicted by security forces during the protests, raising the toll to 15 in the often-bloody demonstrations, which began April 6.
The man was giving out water to protesters when he was shot Saturday in Kusma, about 160 miles west of Katmandu. He died Tuesday in Pokhara, said the Western Regional Hospital and local media.
Norway, meanwhile, which suspended aid to Nepal after Gyanendra seized power 14 months ago, said late Tuesday it would resume its financial assistance because Parliament had been reinstated.
In Washington, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said the United States would consider renewing military aid to Nepal, but that the move would depend on the army supporting the return of multiparty democracy.
Gyanendra's announcement late Monday of Parliament's restoration brought tens of thousands into the streets Tuesday for a celebration instead of protests.
The opposition nominated Koirala, a former prime minister, to head a new government, expected to be formed in coming days, and the capital came back to life after being largely shut because of the strike, protests and repeated curfews.
Gyanendra seized power in February 2005, saying he needed to restore political order and crush the insurgency, which has killed nearly 13,000 people in the past decade.