Nepal Rebels Agree to Peace Talks

Communist rebels agreed Thursday to a new round of peace talks with Nepal's government, raising hopes for an end to a decade-old insurgency that has killed 13,000 people.

The offer was made a day earlier by the Himalayan country's new Cabinet. Both sides have declared cease-fires since protests forced King Gyanendra to yield power last week.

The two sides have tried twice before to negotiate a peace deal, but the talks in 2003 and 2001 broke down after several months. The Cabinet also offered Wednesday to drop terrorism charges against the rebels.

"We welcome it as a positive move," rebel chief Prachanda said in a statement e-mailed to news organizations. "We believe that the talks this time will not be unsuccessful like the two previous ones because there is a historic movement behind this."

He was referring to the new government's moves toward rewriting the constitution, the rebels' key demand in previous talks.

Prachanda said the rebels have proposed a code of conduct for the peace talks and "hope the government will sincerely implement it."

The rebels joined forces with a seven-party alliance and played a key role in the three weeks of violent demonstrations against the king, who had seized absolute power in February 2005, citing the government's failure to quell the insurgency.

The insurgents now appear to be headed for a role in mainstream politics.

Norway's Development Cooperation Minister Erik Solheim, who has been acting as a peace negotiator in Sri Lanka, said the international community stood ready to help Nepal.

"But it can never and should never try to take over," he said after meeting with new Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala. "The government and the Maoists will have to take the driving seat. They will make all the decisions and make all the priorities."

Madhav Kumar Nepal, general-security of the Communist Party of Nepal, agreed.

"Nepal does not need mediation, but we do need the international community to monitor the cease-fire," he said.

Despite their three-month truce declaration last week, the rebels beat to death two alleged robbers after bringing them before villagers in a vigilante-style trial Wednesday in southern Nepal, said Santaraj Subedi, the chief government administrator in the area.

The two men were accused of stealing from residents of Ganjabhawanipur, a village in an area that has a strong rebel presence about 100 miles south of the capital, Katmandu.

Prachanda also earlier accused the seven-party alliance of engaging in a power struggle — a reference to disputes over Cabinet appointments — and said the legislature, which convened last Friday for the first time in four years, isn't up to the tasks at hand.

But many were optimistic.

"We believe the talks will be successful because, unlike the previous governments, we have the support of the people," Home Minister Krishna Sitaula said Wednesday.