By Gopal Sharma
KATHMANDU, May 1 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of supporters of Nepal’s Maoist former rebels, demanding their comrades be readmitted to government, marched to Kathmandu on Saturday in a protest that could imperil a deal that ended a long civil war.
Demonstrators, waving hammer and sickle flags and sporting red head bands, poured into the capital from the countryside and were housed in hundreds of schools. They gathered at a city centre park to demand a return to power a year after they quit in a row with the president.
Landlocked Nepal is strategically perched between Asian giants China and India, with the two countries vying for influence over the Himalayan nation.
The former guerrillas headed a coalition government in 2008 after a surprise win in the election for a constituent assembly, a body tasked to prepare a new constitution, part of a peace deal to end a decade-long civil war and do away with the monarchy.
But they walked out after the president refused to endorse their dismissal of Nepal’s army chief, a move that set back attempts at constitutional change.
Rally speakers demanded the Maoists be put at the head of a new cabinet and demanded the dismissal of the current government on grounds that it had failed to draft the constitution.
"If our demands are not met by the end of Saturday, then we’ll launch an indefinite strike from Sunday," senior Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai said.
The ruling coalition, a loose alliance of 22 political parties, says it is ready to take the Maoists on board, but has refused to let the former guerrillas take responsibility for forming a new cabinet.
The Maoists staged a three-day strike in December which enjoyed limited success and sparked clashes between protesters and Nepali police.
The United States called for restraint ahead of Saturday’s rally.
"Nepal has come a long way since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2006 and these gains should not be lost," ambassador Scott H. DeLisi said in a statement.
Karin Landgren, the chief of the U.N. political mission in Nepal, described the situation as "unpredictable and may seriously endanger the peace process". (Editing by Mayank Bhardwaj and Ron Popeski)