Nepal Leaders Struggle With Cabinet Makeup

Nepal's political leaders, newly returned to power, wrangled over who will sit in a new Cabinet set to negotiate with communist rebels and cement the country's return to democracy.

New Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala met at his house Monday with leaders of the Himalayan nation's seven main political parties, which spearheaded three weeks of demonstrations that forced King Gyanendra to yield absolute control.

But the expected announcement of the makeup of a new Cabinet kept getting delayed amid speculation that the parties were jostling for position as their united front against the king threatened to dissolve into self-interest.

The politicians did not reach accord on the issue Monday, but did agree to trim the Cabinet from 34 to about a dozen members, with the number to be raised later, said Lilamani Pokhrel, a legislator from the People's Front Nepal. The change is meant to streamline what has been seen as an inefficient bureaucracy.

Pokhrel's party and the other six members of the seven-party alliance all are supposed to be represented in the Cabinet.

CountryWatch: Nepal

While the Cabinet's key task will be pursuing peace with the Maoist rebels, the politicians also decided it will be charged with investigating who ordered security forces to crack down on protests, firing live rounds and rubber bullets and clubbing demonstrators with batons, Pokhrel said.

The death toll among protesters rose Monday to 17 after an activist died of head wounds from a police baton on April 21, said Dr. Sambhu Upadhay, of Katmandu's Model Hospital.

The Cabinet also will be charged with invalidating all ordinances, decisions and appointments made by the royal government after the king grabbed power in February 2005, Pokhrel said.

The newly reinstated Parliament on Sunday unanimously called for an assembly to rewrite the constitution, and for a cease-fire with the communist insurgents. The insurgents played a major role in the anti-monarchy protests, and appear headed for a role in the political mainstream.

A new constitution has been the Maoists' top demand. The new government under Koirala, sworn in Sunday for his fifth stint as prime minister, must now spell out the dates and other details of the constitutional assembly.

Koirala, 84 and suffering from persistent lung ailments, got a standing ovation Sunday before addressing Parliament, which opened its first session in four years on Friday.

He urged the communist insurgents to renounce violence and come out of the political cold as he began the challenge of keeping his alliance together — and steering his troubled, impoverished country toward peace and democracy.