Nepali Times Asian Paints
Headline
Still quiet on the western front


BINOD BHATTARAI


The heavy-lift Mi-17 helicopter packed with commandos in full battle gear from the Royal Nepal Army's elite Bhairabnath Battalion descended through monsoon clouds over the village of Karche in Rolpa last Friday. What the pilot did not know was that he was coming in to land smack in the middle of what appeared to be a Maoist victory parade.

The Maoists were as startled as the commandos. As they clambered off the hovering helicopters, rebels started shooting, seriously wounding the co-pilot and two others and damaging the aircraft. After a tense stand-off and the arrival of army reinforcements, the Maoists withdrew into their nearby holdout. They had been preparing for a celebration during which the 69 policemen captured the previous day at Holeri would be paraded, and possibly the Maoist "regional peoples' government" declared. To boost the morale of their cadre, hundreds of Maoist militia from surrounding districts had also been brought in to Nuwagaon and Karche.

Deployed for the first time on a search and rescue mission, the Army had thought this would be a quick commando action against the estimated 400 rebels who had captured the police. But on landing at Karche they found themselves facing armed Maoists double that number, and villagers largely sympathetic to Maoists. Heavy monsoon rains ruled out air support, and the only supply route was the road to Dang which is vulnerable to ambushes.

"The army exercised tremendous restraint. First by not blazing away with their machine guns when the helicopter was attacked, and later by not attacking the base in force," retired Lt Gen Krishna Narayan Singh Thapa told us (see p.7). In hindsight, the restraint could also have been military common sense. They didn't want a messy firefight in hostile terrain, bad weather, uncertain supply lines and the possibility of hundreds of civilian casualties. The Maoists reportedly used villagers and captured policemen as human shields during the early days of the standoff.

The first-ever encounter between the Army and rebels in Nepal's six-year insurgency has therefore settled down to a classic siege. The Maoists are extirpating militia and weapons out of their base in small groups under cover of darkness through secret jungle paths, while the army is waiting for a break in the weather to fly in reinforcements to tighten the noose.

An official news blackout was declared by executive order, so the ground situation remains murky. The information in this article has been collected from a dozen sources close to the security forces, government and Maoists. The Home Ministry issues terse, short statements daily, and the Maoists have countered with their own propaganda. Since journalists have not been allowed in, most Nepalis must choose between the official account of a disciplined army trying to avoid casualties and the Maoists' account that the army is at their mercy and has been "advised" to desert.

By the middle of this week, the army strength had neared 2,000 troops deployed into the surrounding hills, and those in Nuwagaon had been shifted to a more strategic position near Budagaon. Officials say the army is tightening its siege from three garrisons in Karche, Gairagaon and Jugad (see map) and troops are already guarding strategic entry and exit points in the neighbouring districts of Salyan and Dang.

A senior police source told us the Maoist gathering at Karche-Nuwagaon may have been a big meeting to declare a regional government. "We think at least seven senior leaders may have been present in the village," he said, among them: Ram Bahadur Thapa (Comrade Badal, an explosives expert) Poshta Bahadur Bogati (seniormost Maoist leader in the west), Krishna Bahadur Mahara (former Rolpa MP), Comrade Ananta (political commissar) and Comrade Pasang (head of the People's Army).

Most military analysts we talked to said it would be logical for the rebels to try to slip out of the net, and this would be fairly easy to do. "You need a soldier every five yards to make it airtight, and the Maoists know this terrain very well, it is one of their main bases," said one retired army major. Military officials admit some Maoists may have slipped away, but add that the majority are still around "hiding behind the women and children". The army has superior firepower, training and air support, which could be decisive if it comes to a confrontation. "Even if they have escaped they cannot get too far," a military source told us. "We have a mission to accomplish and until then, we will remain around."

Seven human rights activists reached Nuwagaon on Wednesday to try to broker the release of the hostages. They were given 48 hours for the visit. The team had the government's nod and also word of safe-passage from the Maoists. A failed attempt by them would justify use of force by the government.

The new home minister, Chakra Prasad Bastola denies that there is any confusion between the army and the government on chain of command and rules of engagement. "We have given them a clear mandate: free the hostages and disarm the Maoists." The army brass is said to be giving nearly daily briefings to the prime minister, the home minister and the defence minister. The prime minister was said to be in close touch with the king on the issue until he resigned Thursday.

As the stand-off continued, the government in Kathmandu looked shaky once more as pressure on Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to resign mounted from the opposition and dissidents within his own party. The Maoists added their bit: Chairman Prachanda wrote Wednesday in Kantipur that there would no talks until the prime minister stepped down.

Many in Kathmandu would have been hoping that once the army moved into Rolpa it would quickly decimate the Maoist force at Nuwagaon and rescue the hostages. But the military's involvement has many ramifications. The army's own image is at stake, so it cannot conduct its first operation without a clean and clear-cut victory with minimum casualties. The army cannot let Rolpa degenerate into a messy Vietnam-type guerrilla war with civilian casualties. "If the army came out of this with its tail between its legs, that would be the final disaster, and a windfall for the Maoists," said one military source.

The Maoists don't have it much easier. Since the start of their peoples' war, the rebels have been on a roll. Especially in the past two years, they haven't really had an enemy and have resorted to butchering policemen who have no will to fight. "For the first time, they are worried," says one leftist analyst close to the Maoist hierarchy. And this worry shows in the softening of their stance on talks, and the dramatic turnaround in the way they have dropped all mention of King Gyanendra from their slogans and statements. After the army went into action in Rolpa, there has not been a single mention of the ubiquitous "fascist Gyanendra Shah-Girija Koirala clique". The entire focus of their attack has now shifted to Koirala, in part to satisfy the Maoists' own cadre and to help hasten the prime minister's departure. And now, they won't even have him.

In the short term, the Maoist strategy could be to prevent the further deployment of the army at all costs. They are cosying up to the king and possibly even talking to his emissaries, while maintaining the propaganda war to demoralise the army over Rolpa so that the generals will think twice before committing themselves to another adventure. "They know that a search and rescue can easily be turned into a search and destroy," said an army source. For the moment, Maoists will continue attacks on police posts and government targets in other parts of the country, but they will try to minimise the casualties so as not to provoke army retaliation.

For the moment, though, police morale which had hit rock bottom is beginning to recover. The government called all senior police officers to Kathmandu earlier this week for a meeting to rally the force, but without better weapons and support it is unlikely the police is going to be a serious deterrent. The government is hoping that its Integrated Security and Development Package (ISDP) which has been extended to four more districts (Dailekh, Dang, Surkhet and Dolakha), bringing the new count to 11, and a new paramilitary force will provide the necessary backup.

What the military brass will not say, and what is increasingly evident, is that unless the politicians in Kathmandu stop bickering and muster the political will to reach a consensus and deal with the Maoist crisis, the army cannot really do much more than it already is.

STANDOFF

Most military analysts we talked to said it would be logical for the rebels to try to slip out of the net, and this would be fairly easy to do. "You need a soldier every five yards to make it airtight, and the Maoists know this terrain very well, it is one of their main bases," said one retired army major. Military officials admit some Maoists may have slipped away, but add that the majority are still around "hiding behind the women and children". The army has superior firepower, training and air support, which could be decisive if it comes to a confrontation. "Even if they have escaped they cannot get too far," a military source told us. "We have a mission to accomplish and until then, we will remain around."

Seven human rights activists reached Nuwagaon on Wednesday to try to broker the release of the hostages. They were given 48 hours for the visit. The team had the government's nod and also word of safe-passage from the Maoists. A failed attempt by them would justify use of force by the government.

The new home minister, Chakra Prasad Bastola denies that there is any confusion between the army and the government on chain of command and rules of engagement. "We have given them a clear mandate: free the hostages and disarm the Maoists." The army brass is said to be giving nearly daily briefings to the prime minister, the home minister and the defence minister. The prime minister was said to be in close touch with the king on the issue until he resigned Thursday.
As the stand-off continued, the government in Kathmandu looked shaky once more as pressure on Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to resign mounted from the opposition and dissidents within his own party. The Maoists added their bit: Chairman Prachanda wrote Wednesday in Kantipur that there would no talks until the prime minister stepped down.

Many in Kathmandu would have been hoping that once the army moved into Rolpa it would quickly decimate the Maoist force at Nuwagaon and rescue the hostages. But the military's involvement has many ramifications. The army's own image is at stake, so it cannot conduct its first operation without a clean and clear-cut victory with minimum casualties. The army cannot let Rolpa degenerate into a messy Vietnam-type guerrilla war with civilian casualties. "If the army came out of this with its tail between its legs, that would be the final disaster, and a windfall for the Maoists," said one military source.

The Maoists don't have it much easier. Since the start of their peoples' war, the rebels have been on a roll. Especially in the past two years, they haven't really had an enemy and have resorted to butchering policemen who have no will to fight. "For the first time, they are worried," says one leftist analyst close to the Maoist hierarchy. And this worry shows in the softening of their stance on talks, and the dramatic turnaround in the way they have dropped all mention of King Gyanendra from their slogans and statements. After the army went into action in Rolpa, there has not been a single mention of the ubiquitous "fascist Gyanendra Shah-Girija Koirala clique". The entire focus of their attack has now shifted to Koirala, in part to satisfy the Maoists' own cadre and to help hasten the prime minister's departure. And now, they won't even have him.

In the short term, the Maoist strategy could be to prevent the further deployment of the army at all costs. They are cosying up to the king and possibly even talking to his emissaries, while maintaining the propaganda war to demoralise the army over Rolpa so that the generals will think twice before committing themselves to another adventure. "They know that a search and rescue can easily be turned into a search and destroy," said an army source. For the moment, Maoists will continue attacks on police posts and government targets in other parts of the country, but they will try to minimise the casualties so as not to provoke army retaliation.

For the moment, though, police morale which had hit rock bottom is beginning to recover. The government called all senior police officers to Kathmandu earlier this week for a meeting to rally the force, but without better weapons and support it is unlikely the police is going to be a serious deterrent. The government is hoping that its Integrated Security and Development Package (ISDP) which has been extended to four more districts (Dailekh, Dang, Surkhet and Dolakha), bringing the new count to 11, and a new paramilitary force will provide the necessary backup.
What the military brass will not say, and what is increasingly evident, is that unless the politicians in Kathmandu stop bickering and muster the political will to reach a consensus and deal with the Maoist crisis, the army cannot really do much more than it already is.


LATEST ISSUE
638
(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)


ADVERTISEMENT









himalkhabar.com            

NEPALI TIMES IS A PUBLICATION OF HIMALMEDIA PRIVATE LIMITED | ABOUT US | ADVERTISE | SUBSCRIPTION | PRIVACY POLICY | TERMS OF USE | CONTACT