Hundreds of protesters torched vehicles and vandalized shops in western Nepal on Saturday after three people died in clashes between police and illegal forest settlers, a human rights group said, amid heightened political tensions in the Himalayan nation.

Nepal's Human Rights Commission urged the government to immediately investigate the violence that erupted as police tried to remove thousands of illegal squatters in a forest in Kailali district, about 400 miles west of the capital, Katmandu, on Friday.

Hundreds of policemen were mobilized to keep order in the district after the deaths sparked protests Saturday, including by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the former communist rebels, who have called for a nationwide general strike on Sunday.

Political tensions have been high in Nepal since a Maoist-led government resigned earlier this year amid a dispute with the nation's president over the army chief's refusal to incorporate former Maoist rebels fighters into the military.

A senior U.S. diplomat met Nepal's prime minister Friday to express "deep concern" about the political stalemate that threatens to undermine the peace process, a U.S. Embassy statement said Saturday.

Charge d'Affaires Randy Berry expressed his concern to Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal that recent actions by the Maoists are inconsistent with their stated commitment to the peace process, the rule of law, and democratic practices.

The Maoists gave up armed revolt in 2006 but have been blamed for continuing violence and organizing protests against the new government.

The unrest in western Nepal broke out Friday near the town of Lamahi with clashes between police and people who had settled illegally in the forest area protected by the government. After police tried to remove the settlers and tear down their temporary huts, settlers lynched one policeman and officers retaliated by firing at them and killing at least two, officials said.

Uttam Singh, district police chief, said protesters on Saturday shut down the country's main east-west highway by blocking the road that passes through the forest.

The settlers are either homeless or lost their homes in flooding and landslides common in this Himalayan nation.