Nepali Official Line: Killing of Royal Family 'Accidental'

Nepal's acting king Prince Gyanendra claimed Sunday that the shooting death of King Birendra, Queen Aiswarya and six other members of the royal family royals was caused by the "accidental firing of an automatic weapon" — a radical shift from the accounts given by Nepal's leadership on Saturday.

Official sources had said that Dipendra shot his parents and six other relatives to death late Friday before turning the gun on himself in a rampage that a senior military official said apparently erupted after his mother objected to his intended bride.

Prince Gyanendra's statement Sunday did not name Crown Prince Dipendra as the gunman.

Dipendra, who was hospitalized after the shootings, was named to succeed his father as king. Reports Saturday said Dipendra was on life support, but Nepal's prime minister said on state radio Sunday that he was in "extremely critical" condition. The radio report did not say whether he was still on life support.

The uncertainty about Dipendra's condition added to the confusion over the killings.

"According to the information we have, the incident happened by an accidental firing of an automatic weapon, seriously injuring the king, the queen, the crown prince and members of the royal family," Prince Gyanendra, who was named acting king, said in his statement. Gyanendra is Dipendra's uncle.

"They were rushed to the hospital, where, despite the efforts of the doctors, his majesty the king passed away," said Gyanendra, who is the late king's brother. He said that as of Friday night, when the shooting occurred, "Dipendra has been declared his majesty the king of the kingdom of Nepal."

By mentioning the gunfire, the caretaker king went further than the government newspaper, Rising Nepal, which referred only to "an unanticipated incident." Government officials were unavailable for comment Sunday, part of a five-day nationwide mourning period.

The newspaper pictured Dipendra, now king, in royal attire on its front page Sunday, but the 29-year-old remained in a military hospital and Gyanendra, who is little known among Nepalis, was named acting king.

The dead included Birendra, 55; the queen, 51; their son Prince Nirajan, 22; and daughter, Princess Shruti, 24, who had two daughters. The others killed were Princess Sharada Shah and Princess Shanti Singh, both sisters of the slain king; Kumar Khadga Bikram Shah, Sharada's husband; and Princess Jayanti Shah, a cousin of the late king. Three other people were wounded.

Deputy Prime Minister Ram Chandra Paudel, who was widely quoted as saying the crown prince was the gunman, backed off later Saturday.

"I never said that the crown prince did it," Paudel said.

The royal family had gathered Friday night for dinner to discuss the wedding of Crown Prince Dipendra. Sources close to the family said that the prince wished to marry the daughter of a former government minister who is a member of the aristocratic Rana family, which ruled Nepal until 1951.

The violent deaths and conflicting explanations left a stunned, saddened country wondering what happened — and what happens next.

"We believe and we're almost sure that the truth will never come out with the conflicting reports," said Krishna Pant, riding a bicycle in Katmandu on Sunday.

"We have almost been orphaned," he said. "A king is our protector, but now we are left to fend for ourselves. If the king could not be safe, how can we be safe in a situation like this?"

On Saturday night, hundreds of thousands of people tossed flowers, wailed and prayed, bidding farewell to the slain king and his relatives. A grim Gyanendra, dressed in military white, led the funeral procession, which started at sunset and was broadcast on state television.

"Long live our king! Our king and our nation is dearer to us than our lives!" shouted the sea of people that followed the funeral procession to the holiest shrine in this Himalayan kingdom where the bodies were cremated.

The outpouring came during a time of political instability and appeared likely to become another thorn for the beleaguered elected government.

Although a popular uprising in 1990 stripped Birendra of his absolute powers and installed parliamentary democracy, the royal family remained widely popular.

The soft-spoken king won hearts with frequent visits to rural areas, where he patiently listened to the problems of villagers. Prince Gyanendra also kept out of the limelight but is respected for his conservation work in the starkly beautiful but impoverished kingdom.

"Shocking is an understatement, we have been orphaned by this loss," said Janardan Sharma, a vegetable vendor in Katmandu, a city of 1.5 million people.

There were signs the palace massacre would aggravate public unhappiness with Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala's government, which already was under attack over allegations of a bribery scandal and its failure to quell a Maoist insurgency.

Many mourners insisted Dipendra could not have killed his parents and voiced suspicions the government was involved. On Saturday, groups of angry youths yelled accusations that the government conspired against the royal family.

Yet many said Sunday they found it difficult to accept the crown prince as their king.

"Even though we have a king, we don't," said Mohan Thapa, a businessman. "We are not even sure if he's dead or alive. With all these rumors of him having killed King Birendra, it is hard to accept Dipendra as the new king."

In its formal announcement of the deaths, the government did not offer details of what happened Friday night at the Narayanhiti Royal Palace.

Government and military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Saturday that the 29-year-old Dipendra shot all immediate members of the royal family, starting around 10:40 p.m.

The wounded were Gorakh Bikram, Shruti's husband; Komal Shah, Gyanendra's wife; and Prince Dhirendra, the king's youngest brother. They were reported in stable condition at the military hospital.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.