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Nepal and Maoist rebels sign peace agreement

KATMANDU, Nepal -- The government and Maoist rebels signed a peace agreement yesterday to end a 10-year insurgency, marking the start of an uncertain political era in this Himalayan nation, the world's last Hindu monarchy.

Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and a rebel leader, Prachanda, signed the accord at a Katmandu convention hall packed with cheering officials, dignitaries and foreign diplomats.

"This ends the more than one decade of civil war in the country," said Prachanda, who goes by a single name. "We will now turn to a campaign of peace and building a new Nepal."

The prime minister also hailed the accord, saying it "has opened the door for a permanent peace and Nepal has entered a new era."

During the war, the Maoists took control of wide swaths of this Himalayan country, which for decades has been a magnet for Westerners in search of Eastern spirituality and mountain climbers determined to scale the world's highest peaks, including Mount Everest.

The rebels built schools, tried to dismantle Hindu caste barriers, and aided poor farmers, many of whom still live in almost feudal conditions.

But the Maoists also promoted a rigid communist orthodoxy, and were known for murderously enforcing their will on opponents.

The agreement was reached after months of negotiations that centered on how to disarm the insurgents and to bring them into the government, which they helped bring to power by backing mass protests in April against the monarch, King Gyanendra.

On Monday, a government commission issued a report accusing Gyanendra in the brutal crackdown on the April protests, which left 19 people dead and hundreds wounded or arrested.

The commission recommended that the monarch be punished.

The government, which took power last spring, launched peace discussions with the rebels and restored parliament, which the king had suspended 14 months earlier.

For Nepalese like Sangita Tamang, a domestic servant from eastern Nepal who fled to Katmandu a few years ago, the peace agreement yesterday brought the chance for a fresh start.

Those who took part in the protests in April hailed the accord.

"This day is why tens of thousands of Nepalese took to the streets earlier this year," said Prabesh Gurung, a college student.

Under the accord, rebels will join parliament by Nov. 26, and will hold 73 of 330 seats.

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