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Trucks cross Nepal border as blocked checkpoint reopens

Trucks cross Nepal border as blocked checkpoint reopens

KATHMANDU: Cargo trucks drove through a Nepal border crossing for the first time in months on Friday, police said, following a blockade that has caused a crippling shortage of fuel and vital supplies in the landlocked country.

Demonstrators from Nepal’s Madhesi ethnic minority have led a blockade of the key border crossing in Birgunj, 90 kilometres south of Kathmandu, since September.

“There is no blockade at the checkpoint right now, and over 150 small and big vehicles have passed through since this afternoon,” local police chief Raju Babu Shrestha said.

Shrestha said that Nepali and Indian businessmen and locals had dismantled the protesters’ tents and opened the blocked border.

However, Shiva Patel, general secretary of the Sadbhawana political party that represents the Madhesi minority, said that protesters had not withdrawn the blockade.

“Black market goons and police forced our supporters off the crossing.

There was a large mass (of people) there, and it was not safe for us to return,” Patel said.

“We will have a meeting tomorrow morning to discuss what to do next”. More than 50 people have been killed in clashes between police and people protesting against the Himalayan nation’s new constitution, which demonstrators say leaves them politically marginalised.

The unrest has triggered concern in neighbouring India, with New Delhi criticising the charter and urging Nepal to hold talks with the Madhesis, who share close cultural, linguistic and family links with Indians living across the border.

Landlocked Nepal is heavily dependent on India for fuel and other supplies, but slow movement of cargo in other checkpoints since the protests broke out prompted Kathmandu to earlier accuse New Delhi of imposing an “unofficial blockade”.

In a bid to break the deadlock, parties tabled a bill to amend the constitution, promising to increase the presence of the Madhesi — who mainly live in the southern plains — in government bodies through proportional representation.

The bill was passed in January and will likely generate more seats for lawmakers in the densely populated southern plains that are home to most Madhesis.

However, the Madhesis argue the amendment is incomplete and does not address their main demand to revise the federal state borders laid out in the charter that they fear will limit their representation in parliament.

Ongoing discussions between the government and the United Democratic Madhesi Front, an alliance of protesting parties, have failed to reach an agreement.

“We want to resolve these issues through negotiations and have been holding meeting with the leading parties,” said Mahanta Thakur of the Tarai-Madhesh Democratic Party, part of the alliance.

“I cannot comment on the shape of our protests until our alliance sits together for talks,” he said.

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.

Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2016

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