Nepal to introduce constitution despite deadly protests

Kathmandu (AFP) - Nepal will introduce a long-awaited new constitution within days, a parliament spokesman said Tuesday, despite opposition from minority groups that has triggered deadly protests across the south of the country.

Lawmakers have been voting since Sunday on the charter, finalised in August in a historic deal between the main parties -- under pressure to work together following a devastating earthquake.

They are expected to complete the process in the coming days.

The main parties have enough support to pass the bill with the necessary two-thirds majority. But plans to carve the country into seven provinces have angered some ethnic minorities, who say it will leave them under-represented in the national parliament.

The protests have been most intense in the southern plains, where clashes between security forces and protesters have killed 39 people in recent weeks including 11 police officers and an 18-month-old boy.

There has also been criticism of a clause that makes it more difficult for women to pass on Nepali citizenship to their children than it is for men.

"A formal invite has been sent to the president to announce the constitution on Sunday," the parliament secretariat spokesman Bharat Gautam told AFP.

"The secretariat is working rigorously to prepare for the ceremony."

The United States and regional power India on Monday urged lawmakers to ensure there was broad support for the new constitution, which follows the abolition of the monarchy and a decade-long civil war between Maoist insurgents and the state.

"The constitution should have the broadest possible support and the outcome should honour fundamental rights such as gender equality and basic freedoms," the US State Department said in a statement.

"We urge citizens to engage through peaceful, non-violent means, and call on the Nepali security forces to exercise restraint in responding to protests."

The sentiment was echoed by Nepal's own president, who wrote to the chair of the constituent assembly -- the body charged with drafting the constitution -- last week.

"It is important that no group or community or geographic region of the country should be left out of the constitution-writing process," President Ram Baran Yadav said in the letter, obtained by AFP on Tuesday.

Home ministry spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakal said security forces have been put on high alert before the constitution announcement.

Lawmakers from parties representing the Tarai region in the country's south have stayed out of the voting process.

"We have called them for talks again and again, but they have not responded positively," said Bhim Rawal, senior leader of the ruling Nepali Congress.

"Regardless of their response, the process will not stop. Their demands can be met after the constitution is announced."

Work on a new national constitution began after the end in 2006 of the Maoist insurgency that left an estimated 16,000 people dead and brought down the 240-year-old Hindu monarchy.

But negotiations faltered over the issue of internal borders and the resulting uncertainty left Nepal -- one of the world's poorest countries -- in political limbo.

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