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Curfew in Nepal, politicians held to thwart rally

KATHMANDU, Friday (Reuters) - Soldiers and armed police imposed a strict curfew in Kathmandu on Friday and put leading politicians under house arrest to thwart a planned protest against the king, who seized power last year.

Armoured personnel carriers mounted with machine guns patrolled the empty streets of the capital, and groups of soldiers and police in green and blue camouflage were gathered on every street corner.

Former prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala and other leading politicians were put under house arrest before dawn on Friday, hours before a planned rally by political parties to press the king to resore democracy.

Police detained more than 100 politicians and student activists on Thursday and cut mobile phone links in an attempt to stop the rally.

"Ten armed policemen came at 3.30 a.m. (2145g on Thursday) and told Koirala that he was under house arrest," his aide, Krishna Chandra Jha, said.

At Koirala's house, armed police prevented a Reuters team from entering, or meeting the former prime minister, who is spearheading a four-party alliance against King Gyanendra.

King Gyanendra says he was forced to take power last year to stem a Maoist insurgency that has killed more than 12,500 people since 1996. But his moves to curtail civil liberties have left him increasingly unpopular and isolated, and he has failed to make any progress in containing the rebellion.

Protests against the monarch have been steadily gathering strength, with about 100,000 people demonstrating in the southeastern town of Janakpur last week.

Thousands had been expected to join Friday's rally, despite a government ban on protests. But it was uncertain if parties would still try to go ahead given the arrests and the curfew.

"This curfew is wrong," said 35-year-old trader Umanath Gilal. "We can't do our business and earn a living. I won't be participating in the protests but I support the protesters."

The Maoists, who have been fighting to set up a single-party communist republic, have entered into a loose alliance with the main political parties against the monarch.

Earlier this week they urged people to join the rally, and last week stepped up the military pressure with coordinated attacks around Kathmandu killing 12 policemen.

On Jan. 2, the Maoists ended a four-month unilateral ceasefire, saying the government had failed to match it, and vowed to take their revolt from the countryside into the cities. At least 45 people have died since then.

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