Call it a coincidence or a calculated move, the king is starting his visit to the eastern region just when the Maoists' extended unilateral ceasefire is set to end.
The trip, from 1-22 January, is aimed at bolstering the morale of security personnel and royalists. Another coincidence is that on the same day last week when the Maoist leaders announced that the ceasefire would be ending, the army launched its biggest operation so far in the Maoist heartland of Rolpa being coordinated by the RNA's mid-western headquarters, which has been relocated to Surkhet from Nepalganj.
Since 22 December, thousands of soldiers from Dang, Salyan, Rukum and even Kathmandu have been deployed. On the fifth day of the army's advance towards Rolpa, there was a fierce battle between soldiers and Maoists in Dumlachaur of Gairigaun. At least one soldier and two rebels were confirmed dead. However, the battle looks like it was more serious than that, 15 soldiers have been admitted to the military hospital in Chhauni.
Reportedly, the army did not have much difficulty overcoming the rebels near Holeri but the real fight began after about 3,000 soldiers reached Gairigaun on Monday. The rebels tried to pin them down by firing mortars from nearby hills. The army retaliated with long-range weapons and by evening the two sides were involved in close combat. Perhaps anticipating more such clashes, the army is keeping half-a-dozen helicopters on stand-by in Rukum's headquarters Libang, at an army base in Dang and at mid-western headquarters in Surkhet.
For this biggest-ever offensive against the Maoists, the army has deployed 25 companies, one from each battalion in the country. The operation is being led by the chief of the army's training directorate, Brig Gen Sharad Neupane, who previously led the No 4 Brigade in Surkhet at the time also responsible for Rolpa and Rukum districts. This is the army's fourth offensive in Rolpa with Thawang as the target. Officials claim this effort is different because it is more result-oriented while past actions focussed on propaganda.
Indeed, details of the operation have been kept tightly guarded and first reports came out only three weeks after it began. If the army had publicised the move beforehand, it could have created a PR nightmare because the Maoists' ceasefire was still in place. That could explain why the Maoists, who used to vacate even their strongholds as soon as the army arrived, chose to attack this time-to expose the army offensive during the ceasefire. The clash also demonstrates that the rebels have decided to counter-attack all army operations. This week we may hear of more clashes, and more casualties particularly in Rolpa because Gairigaun marks the gateway to the Maoist heartland.