May 4, 2010 / 9:26 AM / 8 years ago

Nepal evacuates tourists as Maoist strike bites

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU, May 4 (Reuters) - Nepal started evacuating on Tuesday scores of tourists stranded by a general strike called by Maoist former rebels in a political standoff with the government that could imperil a peace deal.

Thousands of Maoist supporters began enforcing the indefinite shutdown across the Himalayan nation at the weekend, demanding the government make way for a national unity coalition headed by the Maoists.

Many Nepalis were forced to walk because there were not enough government-run buses to carry them. The country’s only international airport remained open.

The Maoists have not threatened tourists but their supporters have blocked roads and stopped vehicles, stranding many visitors in the western resort town of Pokhara.

Local government official Shankar Koirala said 218 tourists, mostly Indians, were moved in 10 buses escorted by armed police.

Authorities were also making arrangements to evacuate some trekkers stranded at Birethanti, the gateway to the scenic Annapurna trekking trail frequented by thousands of Western hikers every year.

Tourism accounts for four percent of gross domestic product in impoverished Nepal, home to eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains including Mount Everest.

The strike may be beginning to take a toll. On Tuesday, the third day of the shutdown, Kathmandu’s tourist district of Thamel was almost deserted.

"I had to stay in my hotel for two days because I had no way to go out," said Jenny McGrath, an Australian woman from Canberra.

The Maoists headed a coalition in 2008 after a surprise election victory but walked out after the country’s president refused to endorse the dismissal of Nepal’s army chief.

Since then the Maoists have demanded they be allowed to form a new government, plunging the nation into turmoil and endangering a peace deal that ended a decade-long civil war in which more than 13,000 people were killed. (Editing by Bappa Majumdar and Krittivas Mukherjee)

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