KATHMANDU Former Nepali Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, a leading figure in Nepal's transition from monarchy to republic, died on Saturday in what the Maoists called a loss for the fragile peace process.
Koirala, a six-time prime minister, died at the age of 86 at his daughter's home in Kathmandu, where thousands of supporters had gathered. One of his doctors told Reuters he had died of a chest infection.
Koirala helped begin landmark peace talks with the Maoists in 2006 to end a long civil war that killed more than 13,000 people.
The dialogue brought the former rebels into the political mainstream and paved the way for the abolition of the 239-year-old Hindu monarchy. Koirala is seen by many as a guardian of the peace process.
"His death is an irreparable loss to the peace process and the process of making a new constitution," Maoist chief Prachanda said in a statement.
Koirala was the head of the centrist Nepali Congress party, the biggest constituent in the coalition government.
He became the country's first elected prime minister in 1991 after pro-democracy protests.
Senior Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba told reporters the funeral would be held on Sunday.
Nepal has been in political turmoil since the Maoists quit the government last year in a conflict with the president over plans to fire the country's army chief.
Analysts said the peace process would not get derailed.
"I think the peace process will survive. Prachanda says it is a loss because he and Koirala were working to find a power sharing agreement at a high level political mechanism," said Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times weekly.
INDIA, CHINA TIES
Giant rivals India and China compete for influence in the impoverished Himalayan nation, with New Delhi keeping a close eye on warming Sino-Nepalese ties.
Koirala spent several years in India and had close contacts with Indian leaders. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a statement praised Koirala's "enlightened vision of India-Nepal relations."
The Nepal government declared Sunday, which is normally a working day, a public holiday and said Koirala would be given a funeral with state honors.
Thousands of people, many carrying bouquets of flowers, stood in long lines outside where Koirala's body was being kept to pay their respects.
"He was a freedom fighter and a great democrat. I am very saddened by his death," said Rabindra Shrestha, a Kathmandu taxi driver, after placing a wreath on Koirala's body.
"Shri Koirala was one of Nepal's tallest leaders and an elder statesman of South Asia," Manmohan Singh said.
"Shri Koirala was a mass leader and a statesman, whose knowledge and wisdom guided the polity of Nepal in the right direction at critical junctures in the country's history."
Koirala had been released from hospital earlier this week after receiving treatment for anemia, breathing problems and other ailments.
He spent nearly seven years in jail in the 1960s for protests against the king.
(Editing by Matthias Williams and Jon Hemming)