Nepalese cheer as fuel rationing ends after 5 months

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Nepal ended five months of fuel rationing on Tuesday after persuading protesters to end a border blockade that cut supplies of oil and other goods to the Himalayan nation.

Happy residents of Kathmandu lined up at gas stations to fill up their cars, and traffic resumed its usual snarl through the capital. Bus passengers waited calmly as full buses passed them by, preferring to hold out for the chance of a seat on another bus rather than scrambling on top for what in past weeks might have been the only ride of the day.

"This is the best news I have heard this year," said taxi driver Ram Tamang, who for months had to buy expensive fuel on the black market. "Now I finally will be able to drive my taxi all day, charge only what shows on the meter and not argue about the price."

The border blockade by ethnic Madhesi who are demanding more constitutional power crippled the country as it attempted to recover from devastating earthquakes that struck last year, killing thousands and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. Without enough fuel, deliveries of food and shelter to vulnerable mountain communities were curtailed through the winter. Schools, markets and transportation routes were shut for months.

But while Tuesday's fuel sales brought relief and cheer, many worried that officials would be unable to keep the fuel flowing. The government has yet to resolve its impasse with the Madhesi, and protesters could resume the blockade at any time.

"Everything is so uncertain here," Tamang said. "Today we have fuel, but tomorrow we could be waiting in line again. Unless the Madhesi problem is sorted out for good, this is only temporary. This is likely a brief period of relief."

Narayan Maharjan, a public van driver, said he was glad to return to work and earn a regular income for his family.

"I feel like celebrating. But I am going to store as much diesel as I can in my garage," he said. "The supply could easily stop."

It took the government six months to quell the protests, in which more than 50 people were killed in clashes with security forces. The Madhesi began blocking Nepal's southern border with India, and many Nepalese accused New Delhi of providing tacit support for the protesters' demands for a larger state, more government representation and more local autonomy. India, which has close ties with the ethnic group, also temporarily restricted some supplies to Nepal.

The protesters warned Tuesday that they could resume their blockades at any time.

"We have only changed our method of protest," said Laxman Lal Karna of the United Democratic Madhesi Front, the main group leading the protests. "We can again shut down the border if the government does not agree to our demands."

The state-owned Nepal Oil Corp., the country's monopoly oil importer and supplier, said drivers would be able to buy as much fuel as they wanted Tuesday, but acknowledged it had only enough to supply 70 percent of the usual demand.

"The lifting of the rationing of fuel should end long lines at service stations and end difficulties for consumers," said Deepak Baral, a Nepal Oil official. He did not say how the company planned to accommodate everyone, or if it was prepared to deal with people buying more than they needed.

Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, who was visiting India this week, said the two sides are committed to keeping the border open after clearing up misunderstandings that strained relations during the protests.