Protesting group agrees to talks with Nepal government

KATHMANDU: The main group protesting against a new constitution in Nepal has agreed to sit down for talks with the government in the first step toward easing the lingering crisis in the Himalayan nation.

United Democratic Madhesi Front said in a statement Monday that they had selected a four-member team to hold talks with the government. The front is the main group leading protests in southern Nepal that have left more than 45 people dead and have stopped the flow of fuel and supplies to the country's north, including the capital.

They said they will continue their protests, including blocking highways and border points with India.

The ethnic Madhesis are upset that the new constitution divides Nepal into seven new states, with some borders slicing through their ancestral homeland in the southern plains. Madhesis, along with several other small ethnic groups, want the states to be larger and to be given more autonomy over local matters.

The Madhesis live in the southern border areas of Nepal and have close cultural ties with India, which has been supporting them and imposed an unofficial blockade, stopping the flow of oil and other essential supplies over the border.

The blockade has restricted daily life in Nepal, with cars lining up for miles at gasoline stations and schools shutting down, and has resulted in shortages of vegetables and hospitals running low on medicine.

Nepal obtains most of its fuel and other vital supplies from India. Many Nepalis believe India has been retaliating against their government since Sept. 20 when it approved the new constitution seen by New Delhi as discriminatory toward the Madhesi community.

Indian officials deny there is a blockade and say drivers are afraid to enter Nepal. Nepalese authorities say there is no trouble at many cross-border checkpoints.

Police official Pramod Kharel said 66 trucks, including some carrying fuel, entered Nepal Monday at the Jogbani border point 400 kilometers (250 miles) southeast of the capital, Kathmandu.

There was, however, a minor clash at the border crossing between protesters and police at midnight. Police fired in the air twice to disperse the crowd but no one was hurt and four people were briefly detained.

There was no movement of cargo in the main border crossing at Birjunj where protesters blocked the route and hundreds of trucks were lined up on the Indian side.