KATHMANDU Maoist protesters shut down Nepal for a fifth straight day Thursday in a showdown with the government that is threatening a fragile peace deal, even as authorities seek an extension of a U.N. peace mission.
Experts say the Maoists, who control 40 percent of seats in the 601-seat parliament, are applying pressure tactics to return to power, a year after quitting in a conflict with the president.
"He (Maoist chief Prachanda) could not come to power through the parliamentary arithmetic so he has gone to the streets," said Kunda Dixit, editor of the weekly Nepali Times.
Thousands of Maoists, many carrying bamboo sticks, blocked roads, demanding Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal resign and accept Maoists at the head of a unity government. The government has so far said it will not give in.
"The Maoists cannot press us from the streets. There are parliamentary and democratic rules," said Arjun Narsingh K.C., a senior leader of the Nepali Congress party, the biggest group in the ruling alliance.
Some people have already begun to defy the Maoists and there were reports of minor clashes between residents and Maoist supporters in Kathmandu and other towns across Nepal.
Late Thursday, authorities imposed an indefinite curfew in two towns outside Kathmandu after the clashes.
State-run radio said more than a dozen people were injured in the southern town of Birgunj, where police used batons to disperse the two groups.
Ordinary Nepalis say they are being hurt by the strike.
"I can't go to work and even earn my bread," said Ramesh Bhandari, a painter. Consumer groups say food was running low and prices had risen.
The standoff has delayed the integration and rehabilitation of more than 19,000 former Maoist fighters, a key part of the peace deal, and hit the U.N. peace mission's exit plans.
The current mandate of the U.N. mission, known as UNMIN, ends on May 15 and was meant to be its last. But Nepal's U.N. Ambassador, Gyan Chandra Acharya, asked the Security Council on Wednesday to extend it for another four months.
Analysts say seeking an extension of the mission to monitor arms and armies under a 2006 peace deal were signs that the impasse could continue.
Diplomats said the Security Council was expected to make a decision on the Nepali request soon.
(Editing by Paul de Bendern and Jeremy Laurence)