Nepal's ruling Maoists hand over arms cache

KATHMANDU Fri Sep 2, 2011 4:49am EDT

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KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal's Maoist former rebels have handed control of a cache of more than 3,000 weapons to a multi-party committee overseeing the country's peace process, officials said on Friday.

Weapons used by the Maoists during their decade-long rebellion that ended in 2006 are kept in metal containers in seven camps across the tiny Himalayan state. Keys to the containers were handed over to the committee.

The former rebels have not said what types of weapons are contained in their caches.

The Maoists are now part of the political mainstream. On Sunday parliament elected Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai as prime minister in move seen as positive for the still fragile peace process.

"We had promised to hand over the keys after the formation of a coalition government headed by us. We have done that," a senior Maoist leader Barsa Man Pun said.

More than 19,000 former fighters housed in camps came under the control of the multi-party committee this year after the United Nations closed its mission in the country. The Maoists had until now refused to transfer control of the weapons.

A U.S. embassy statement called the Maoists' latest move "a promising step."

"We hope it signals the commitment of the (Maoists) to continue moving forward to complete the peace process," the embassy said.

Some hard-liners within the Maoist group have opposed the handover of the weapons saying they were not consulted.

Conflict analyst Bishnu Raj Upreti said the move was a small positive step by the former rebels to regain trust that has been lost with other political parties in recent years.

"Until the weapons are completely destroyed the security dimension of the peace process is not complete," Upreti said.

Nepal's government now faces the thorny task of integrating the Maoist fighters into the security forces or rehabilitating them into civilian life in the poor republic where Lord Buddha was born.

The Maoists have been demanding 7,000 fighters be absorbed into the national army, and the rest be rehabilitated in the society. Rival political parties say only 5,000 could be integrated.

The future of the fighters is key to the stability of a country that acts as a buffer between China and India, who compete for influence. Nepal sits on the source of rivers supplying water to millions in South Asia.

More than 16,000 people were killed in the Maoist conflict which raged for ten years from 1996.

(Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Alex Richardson)

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