KATMANDU, Nepal – Police arrested 300 protesters in Nepal's capital Thursday, chasing them down narrow lanes and beating them with batons on the first day of a general strike to demand the king restore democracy in the Himalayan nation.
Communist rebels, meanwhile, took 28 hostages in a raid on a southern town that left at least 13 people dead.
The government ordered troops across Nepal to do whatever was necessary to foil the protests and strike against King Gyanendra's power grab last year.
Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters rallied across Katmandu and a suburb, Lalitopur. They fled from police shooting tear gas, chanting "We want democracy. Down with autocracy."
Students leaders, women's activists and members of Nepal's seven main political parties were among those arrested in Katmandu, protest leader Khadga Prasad Oli told The Associated Press. He said at least 16 different protests took place in the city.
Home Ministry spokesman Gopendra Pandey confirmed some arrests were made, but said the exact number was being determined. He said protesters hurled stones at cars on the roads, damaging eight vehicles. "The situation is quite normal. There is no law and order problem," he said.
The strike, called by the seven political parties, was backed by communist rebels, whose decade-long fight to oust the king underlies the political crisis.
"The streets are empty. There are no vehicles. I walked for half an hour to get to work," said Manisha Shahi, who works at a hotel near the royal Narayanhiti Palace in Katmandu. "But it is not safe to walk, too. Anything could happen."
The king argues he was forced to seize power last February because of the growing insurgency, which has killed some 13,000 people since 1996. He has been under international pressure to restore democracy, including from the United States, Britain and India.
Soon after taking power, the king imposed a state of emergency and clamped restrictions on the media. Although the emergency decree was lifted, the government has continued to crack down on opposition politicians and activists.
A State Department report released this week said Nepal's human rights record had worsened and criticized the king's restrictions on the press and political activists.
The rebels pledged not to stage attacks in Katmandu during the anti-government rallies, but they continued their violent campaign in the countryside.
In Malangawa, about 75 miles south of Katmandu, rebels bombed government buildings and raided security bases late Wednesday, police official Rajan Limbu said. The militants took a local official and 27 policemen hostage and freed jailed comrades, he said.
Six policemen, five rebels and two civilians were killed, a police official said on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
A Russian built M1-17 army helicopter crashed during the fighting, and rebels claimed they had shot it down. The Royal Nepalese Army said it was investigating the incident. The status of the crew was unknown.
Despite the rebels' pledge not to attack in Katmandu, the government cited fear of terror strikes in the capital as a reason for cracking down on the protests.
"We don't quite believe what the Maoists are saying. If any untoward incident happens, it will be too late to repair," Information Minister Shrish Shumshere Rana told the AP. "Just because they have said there is a brief holiday for terror, it doesn't mean we believe them."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized the crackdown Wednesday in a statement released through his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric.
"While maintenance of law and order is the responsibility of the state, security considerations should not be the basis for denying citizens their right to peaceful protest — a right for which virtually all avenues seem to be closing," Dujarric said.
Ahead of the start of the four-day strike Wednesday, police detained about 75 pro-democracy activists who defied a ban on rallies in the capital, including several journalists.
The city also imposed an overnight curfew. Soldiers patrolled the streets, and cars entering the capital were searched to ensure political activists did not enter.
Political parties denounced the tough measures.
"There is no basis for the government's actions. I am absolutely confident there will be no violence unless it is provoked by actions of the security forces," said Ram Sharan Mahat, a senior leader of the Nepali Congress, the largest party.