Indian trucks cross freely into Nepal for first time in four months

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Residents and traders in southern Nepal on Friday dismantled tents and roadblocks set up by protesters at a key border crossing, allowing trucks to cross freely from neighboring India for the first time in four months.

More than 50 people have died in an agitation against Nepal’s first republican constitution led by minority Madhesis, who say the charter ignores their demands for a united homeland and greater say in the running of the Himalayan nation.

A prolonged blockade mounted by southern lowlanders on the “Friendship Bridge” linking the Nepali town of Birgunj with Raxaul in India had caused acute fuel shortages and spurred smuggling along the porous border.

“Trucks are moving smoothly,” Nepali police official Habendra Bahadur Bogati told Reuters. “We hope that it will be normal. But we can’t say if this will continue.”

People in Birgunj and Raxaul, in India’s eastern state of Bihar, had cleared tents pitched on the bridge by protesters from the Madhesi minority, added Raju Babu Shrestha, a second police official.

Twenty container trucks rolled into Nepal for the first time since the blockade started in September, said customs official Mitralal Regmi.

In November, police forcibly removed protesters from the bridge, leading to clashes with protesters that killed one Indian citizen.

On Friday, one protest leader said residents on the Indian side of the border removed the barriers and sent trucks into Nepal at a time when there were no protesters on the bridge.

“We have asked our supporters to stop the flow of traffic without resorting to violence,” said Sarbendra Nath Shukla of the Tarai Madesh Loktantrik Party, a part of the Madhesi Front that is leading the protests.

“Confrontation will not solve the problem. We want to resolve it peacefully.”

Nepali Prime Minister K.P. Oli has appeared increasingly isolated by the protests and faced criticism from India over the tough line taken by the authorities against them . The lifting of the blockade may signal the stand-off is easing.

Nepal’s finance minister is due to visit India this weekend, paving the way for a possible trip by Oli, who has said he will visit New Delhi only after an end to the blockade, which Kathmandu has blamed on India.

Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Clarence Fernandez