KATMANDU, Nepal – Nepal's crisis grew bloodier Wednesday when security forces fatally shot four pro-democracy protesters as the government imposed a curfew in the capital to prevent a huge rally urging the king to loosen his grip on power.
Two weeks of often-violent protests and a general strike against palace rule have paralyzed Nepal, leaving cities short of food and fuel and the country at its most volatile since the monarch seized power 14 months ago.
The royal government has responded harshly, claiming Nepal's communist insurgents — who are now allied with the opposition — have infiltrated rallies to sow violence. Police have beaten, tear gassed and arrested thousands of protesters.
A total of 10 Nepalis, including the four Wednesday, have been slain by security forces in this Hindu kingdom once known as Shangri-La since the opposition launched a general strike April 6.
Officials claimed security forces opened fire only after being shot at during an assault by brick-throwing protesters in Chandragadi, about 310 miles southeast of Katmandu. The government has made such claims in the past, although no shootings by protesters have been independently verified.
The region's chief administrator, Bhola Siwakoti, also said the demonstrators defied a ban on protests and were looting.
There were conflicting reports of how many were killed. The Defense Ministry said two people were dead, another Nepali official put the toll at four, and a U.N. official said it was five. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the situation's sensitivity.
The shootings reinforced fears of more bloodshed Thursday, when the opposition hoped to mass 100,000 people onto the ring road that skirts Katmandu.
Trying to off head the march, which would dwarf previous protests and undercut government claims that demonstrators lack popular support, authorities announced a Katmandu curfew from 2 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday.
Soldiers and police were ordered to shoot violators, and no passes were issued to diplomats, U.N. workers and journalists — groups that had received passes in the past.
"The events show how desperate the present royal regime is. It is becoming paranoid," said Dhruba Adhikary of the independent Nepal Press Institute. "The movement is getting popular, it is expanding and growing."
The opposition campaign has brought ordinary Nepalis into the streets alongside students and political activists. On Wednesday, some 250 professors held a protest. All were arrested.
A few thousand people also protested in Katmandu and demonstrators hurled bricks at police, who responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and baton charges.
While nearly all here said they were hoping Thursday's protest would be peaceful, many said they did not fear violence.
"If we are faced with violence tomorrow, we will burn the palace," said Ankil Shresthra, a 22-year-old student. "The king will die."
Nepal's Hindu royal dynasty was once revered as godlike, and the recent chants of "Hang the king" in Nepal's streets are a major departure from past protests, like the 1990 uprising that led his older brother to introduce democracy.
King Gyanendra ended that experiment in February 2005, saying he needed to crush the Maoist insurgency that has killed nearly 13,000 people in a decade.
While many of Nepal's 27 million people at first welcomed the king's power grab — frustrated by squabbling politicians — the worsening insurgency and faltering economy have fueled discontent.
Gyanendra is under enormous pressure from Nepal's major international partners — the United States and India — to compromise with the political parties organizing the protests.
India, a burgeoning global power that does not want disorder on its doorstep, sent a special envoy to press the king to reach a deal with the parties, who are demanding a new constitution that would limit — or eliminate — the monarchy's role.
"I am always optimistic," Indian envoy Karan Singh said.
Hours before Wednesday's shootings, the government freed two top opposition leaders who had been jailed for three months. Both pledged to join the protests.
No reasons were given for their release, although many here saw the move as a government attempt to appear conciliatory as the Indian envoy arrived.