KATHMANDU: Nepal police on Monday burned down tents and baton-charged scores of demonstrators who had blocked a key Indian border checkpoint, creating crippling fuel shortages, a protest organizer said.
Ethnic minority protesters angered by Nepal’s new constitution had blocked a bridge crossing in the town of Birgunj since September 24, cutting off vital supplies and forcing fuel rationing in the landlocked Himalayan nation.
“Police beat up demonstrators this morning and burned down our tents, forcibly opening the border to allow trucks to move across,” said Shiva Patel, general secretary of the regional Sadbhawana party, which participated in the blockade.
“Around 15 protesters have been injured while police have detained five other demonstrators for refusing to vacate the site,” Patel told AFP.
Nepal has historically sourced all its fuel from India, but the movement of cargo across Birgunj, around 90 kilometers south of Kathmandu, and other Indian border checkpoints slowed to a crawl since the protests kicked off.
It has prompted authorities in Kathmandu to accuse New Delhi of backing the demonstrators and imposing an “unofficial blockade” to register its dissatisfaction with the new constitution.
New Delhi has denied the claims and has urged dialogue with protesters, who belong to the Madhesi ethnic minority and have close cultural, linguistic and family ties to Indians living across the border.
Patel said the police action showed the government was not committed to resolving the crisis through dialogue.
“The government called our leaders for talks in Kathmandu, but this police action shows that they are two-faced and not committed to dialogue,” he told AFP.
“We will intensify our protest and have called on villages across the region to join us in our fight.”
No resumption of supplies
A senior Nepali customs official said dozens of empty Indian trucks that had been stranded in Nepal due to the blockade were making their way across the border.
“More than a hundred empty Indian trucks have left Birgunj to return to India but no vehicles have entered Nepal from the Indian side yet,” said Sishir Kumar Dhungana, Director General of the Department of Customs.
“We are trying co-ordinate details with our Indian counterparts so supplies can reach Nepal now that the blockade has been cleared.”
The disruption has soured ties between Nepal and its powerful neighbor, prompting Kathmandu to sign its first ever fuel agreement with Beijing last week, ending a decades-long monopoly by India.
Beijing also agreed to donate 1.3 million liters of petrol to Nepal in a bid to ease shortages, which forced international aid organizations to halt relief operations targeting tens of thousands of quake victims just weeks before winter.
The constitution, the first drawn up by elected representatives, was meant to cement peace and bolster Nepal’s transformation to a democratic republic after decades of political instability and a 10-year Maoist insurgency, but it instead sparked deadly violence.
More than 40 people have been killed in clashes between police and ethnic minority protesters, who say a new federal structure laid out in the charter adopted in September will leave them under-represented in parliament.