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Nepal abolishes centuries-old Hindu monarchy

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal’s political parties voted on Wednesday to abolish the Himalayan kingdom’s 239-year-old Hindu monarchy, a key demand of Maoists after they ended a decade-long war against the government.

Delegates at a special assembly voted 560 to four in favor of abolishing the monarchy. Hours before, suspected royalists threw three small, homemade bombs in Nepal’s capital, wounding one person.

The government has told unpopular King Gyanendra to vacate his pink pagoda-roofed palace in the capital Kathmandu within a fortnight, or be forced out. He has made few comments on his future plans, except to say he wanted to remain in Nepal.

On hearing the result of the vote, thousands of people danced in the streets of Kathmandu, many waving different party flags and chanting “Welcome to a republic”. The government declared the next two days a public holiday.

“Today is the day when my dreams have been realized and similarly the dreams of the nation have perhaps also been realized,” Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala said in an address to the assembly.

Activists of the royalist militant group Ranabir Sena threw pamphlets at the site of one of Wednesday’s blasts, demanding that Nepal remain a Hindu kingdom, police said.

Two bombs exploded only meters away from the heavily guarded venue for the assembly while another went off in a city park.

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All through the day, thousands of Nepalis gathered in the historic parts of Kathmandu and near the site of the assembly, ringed by riot police, to celebrate the end of a monarchy seen by many of its inhabitants as out of touch.

“Let’s celebrate the dawn of a republic in a grand manner,” one loudspeaker blared from the top of a taxi.

Thousands of Maoists, now members of the assembly’s biggest political party after joining the political mainstream, marched in the capital carrying hammer and sickle flags and pumping their fists in the air as they shouted “Down with the monarchy!”.

It has been a dramatic decline and fall for a king once waited upon by thousands of retainers. Many Nepalis revered the monarch in majority-Hindu Nepal as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the god of protection.

Now, his portrait has been wiped off bank notes and his name has disappeared from the national anthem. He has been asked to pay his own electricity bills.

“The king will be given 15 days to leave the palace and the palace will be turned into a historical museum after he leaves,” Peace and Reconstruction Minister Ram Chandra Poudel said.

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Although some royalists may oppose the move, they are heavily outnumbered by mainstream political groups and Maoist former rebels, who emerged as the largest party in elections to the 601-member assembly.

“This is the people’s victory,” said Kamal Dahal, a 22 year-old former Maoist guerrilla. “With today’s declaration of a republic we have achieved what we fought for.”

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Nepalis say much of the mystique of the royal family was destroyed by the 2001 palace massacre in which popular King Birendra and eight other royals were killed by then Crown Prince Dipendra, who then turned a gun on himself.

The royal image was further tarnished after Gyanendra fired the government and assumed absolute powers in 2005, only to be humbled by weeks of anti-king protests a year later.

Political parties and Maoists say a new president will step into the king’s place as a head of state after the end of the monarchy.

The head of the U.N. mission warned on Tuesday that Nepal still faces many challenges, including political violence and a Maoist army of thousands which has yet to be fully demobilized.

“The Constituent Assembly election was a milestone, a major achievement, in that (peace) process, but it does not represent the completion of the process,” Ian Martin told reporters.

But ordinary Nepalis in the streets of Kathmandu were happy to focus on the present.

“I think it is good that the king is going,” said taxi driver Niranjan Shrestha, 36.

“He hasn’t done anything for the people except amassing money for himself and his family.”

Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia