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(Kathmandu) - In Nepal’s civil war, both Maoist insurgents and the Royal Nepali Army continue to attack civilians after the royal takeover of power, violating the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch researchers in the southern town of Nepalgunj documented several attacks on civilians by both the Maoist insurgents and government troops, including the Maoists' burning an ambulance and placing bombs in schools, and government troops shooting and wounding two members of a wedding party.

King Gyanendra, who took over all executive authority on February 1 with military backing, has not yet delivered on his promise to address the brutal civil war against Maoist insurgents, which has claimed the lives of some 11,000 people, mostly civilians. Since February 10, the Maoist rebels have used extreme violence to enforce a strict nationwide strike (or “bandh”) by blockading roads and attacking civilians who defy the ban on work or movement. Maoist fighters have attacked civilian cargo trucks and passenger buses, and threatened to cut off the hands of drivers who defy the bandh.

“Army abuses since the royal power grab seem only to have spurred the Maoist rebels to commit further abuses of their own,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “There is a real danger that war crimes in Nepal will spiral out of control.”

The situation in Nepalgunj, at the junction of a north-south road to nearby India and the Mahendra highway, Nepal's major east-west artery, provides a snapshot of the country’s deteriorating security situation. The Maoist insurgents' bandh has stopped nearly all motor traffic on the Mahendra highway and nearby roads, cut the flow of commerce, including scarce petrochemical products, and closed down schools. Meanwhile, government security forces heavily censor all local press and monitor the activity of local human rights monitors.

In violation of the laws of war, Maoist forces on February 22 stopped and blew up an ambulance at a roadblock on the Mahendra highway near Kohalpur village, 18 kilometers from Nepalgunj and about a kilometer and a half from the Kohalpur Army Barracks. According to eyewitnesses, the ambulance was returning to the town of Dang with a released patient and a relative after dropping off two patients at a hospital in Nepalgunj. A group of some ten Maoist fighters stopped the ambulance at approximately 2:30 p.m. and demanded to know why the ambulance was defying the bandh. As the ambulance driver and an ambulance company official tried to argue that they had a right to use the road, one of the Maoist fighters threw an incendiary device—most likely a grenade—into the ambulance. The blast caused the oxygen tank on board to explode and blow the roof off the ambulance; this led the Maoist fighters to believe that they were being attacked by the Royal Nepali Army and flee. Under the laws of war, medical transport is protected at all times from attack. The ambulance had been a gift from the Indian government on January 26, and was one of the few local ambulances equipped with an oxygen tank.

Royal Nepali Army troops from barracks located at Aranico Maidan, on the road to Dang, on February 22 shot and wounded two men who were part of a wedding party returning home. The two, a 15-year-old boy and a 56-year-old man, said they were among 30 or so revelers, including the bride and groom, who were walking past an army checkpoint at approximately 7 p.m. Troops manning the checkpoint demanded they stop and put their hands in the air. Nearly immediately, some of the troops fired between five to ten rounds at the group. An army major in command at the checkpoint quickly stopped the shooting. The 15-year-old sustained injuries in both feet, likely from a bullet that ricocheted off his right heel; the older man was shot in the left thigh, shattering the bone. The army has not claimed, as it has in some similar circumstances in the past, that its actions were in self-defense or otherwise justified. Nor has the army announced any investigation of the troops responsible for shooting at the group.

A roadside explosive, allegedly set by Maoist insurgents, on February 21 injured three people walking along Nepalgunj's main thoroughfare, next to the Teaching Hospital. The bomb exploded around 7 p.m., causing shrapnel and ball-bearing wounds to a 27-year-old man, whose artery in his left arm was severed, and to his two companions.

All government schools in Nepalgunj were closed after a number of explosives, allegedly set by Maoist rebels over the past week, either detonated or were discovered by government troops. The Maoist insurgents have repeatedly demanded that all schools and government offices should cease operations during their indefinite bandh. Local authorities have not stated when the schools will reopen again.

“Throughout the civil war, we've witnessed shocking disregard for the security of civilians by both the army and the rebels,” Adams said. “Both sides claim to be fighting on the side of the people, but in fact their main targets have been Nepal's civilians.”

Human Rights Watch called on both the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the Royal Nepali Army to immediately instruct their forces not to attack civilians or civilian objects in keeping with the basic tenets of the laws of war, and to discipline any troops responsible for abuses.

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