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Curfews, ethnic protests hit Nepal's southern plains

BIRGUNJ, Nepal, Jan 26 (Reuters) - As armed police sat by shut shops in Birgunj, Nepal's main trading point with the world, a cow urinated undisturbed on a deserted thoroughfare that a few days before had been packed with ethnic Madhesi people.

It is curfew time in the southern plains of Nepal, a country that only a month ago seemed close to shaking off a decade of civil war and political unrest.

Nepal, which was hoping for permanent peace after a landmark deal between the government and Maoist rebels last November, is suddenly faced with a storm of violent protests in its Terai plains, a fertile region bordering India.

Many Madhesis here are more linked in language and culture to India than with Nepal's highlanders, and say "hill-dominated" elites have denied them a fair share of power.

The Madhesi protests have left five people dead and dozens wounded over the past week and shocked a country trying to recover from a civil war that killed 13,000 people.

Five towns are under curfew in the Terai, which accounts for 23 percent of the landlocked nation's area but nearly half the population.

Many were injured in clashes on Thursday in Birgunj between police and supporters of the Madhesi People's Rights Forum, which has spearheaded the protests.

But despite the curfew, violence was unabated on Friday.

"Get back in your houses, you swine," a policeman shouted at people who had gathered on roofs in a Madhesi neighbourhood of Birgunj, the industrial hub of Nepal, three km (two miles) from the Indian border.

"THIS WAS MY LUNCH"

Madhesi activists, many of them in their teens and carrying big bamboo canes, had damaged a small police office, throwing the food of policemen on the ground and wrecking one officer's motorcycle.

"That was my lunch," another police officer said, looking at the rice and vegetables strewn on the ground

Barely two hundred metres away, dozens of young Madhesis burnt tyres and shouted: "We will finish off the police post later."

Madhesi leaders say their community is under-represented in the armed forces, police, judiciary and the interim parliament that has been set up in the peace deal between Maoists and the ruling seven-party alliance.

Analysts say resentment has burst into the open after pro-democracy protests ended King Gyanendra's absolute rule last year, creating a free but uncertain climate in one of the world's poorest nations.

"The unrest in Terai is now the biggest threat to the peace process," wrote political commentator Kunda Dixit in the Nepali Times.

"There is no other way to tackle this. Nepal is falling from the frying pan into the fire."

The peace process will see the ex-rebels join an interim government and fight elections for a constituent assembly in the summer that will decide Nepal's future, including the fate of the unpopular monarchy.

"We are not ready to tolerate discrimination anymore in the name of keeping peace," said Jitendra Sonal, the president of the youth wing of the Madhesi People's Right Forum.

Sonal's face was marked by purple bruises -- the result, he says, of a police beating.

Besides taking the gloss off the peace process, there is worry about tension between highlanders and Madhesis.

Private security guard Radheshyam Thapa, who is from the mountains but lived all his live in Birgunj, can vouch for that. He said his wife and seven-year-old daughter were hurt when Madhesi activists attacked his house on Thursday.

"Why are they raising these (ethnic) feelings? Aren't we all Nepalis?" Thapa said bitterly.

Additional reporting by Gopal Sharma in KATHMANDU

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