Lokendra Bahadur Chand, the Nepalese prime minister, resigned yesterday - plunging the Himalayan kingdom deeper into a political crisis that started two years ago with a palace massacre that left ten members of the Royal Family dead.
His decision followed seven months of protests against King Gyanendra’s dismissal of Nepal’s elected government and parliament. Opposition parties said the king’s appointment of Mr Chand, a pro-monarchist, was unconstitutional.
"My resignation, I hope, will pave the way to resolve the present conflict," said Mr Chand, 63.
The latest chapter in Nepal’s protracted political crisis began even as guests chatted and drank at a royal gala dinner to celebrate the Everest jubilee in Katmandu on Thursday, when Mr Chand was heard whispering to foreign diplomats that he would resign.
Conferring honorary Nepalese citizenship on Sir Edmund Hillary proved to be one of Mr Chand’s last acts as prime minister.
At lunchtime yesterday, the Royal palace issued a statement saying that King Gyanendra had accepted the premier’s resignation, but no explanation was given.
Mr Chand’s new government achieved a major victory by bringing the country’s Maoist rebels to the negotiating table. Seven years of often brutal fighting between the Maoists and the government have cost over 7,000 lives. The political parties refused to join the talks.
Mr Chand’s departure is being interpreted as an attempt to reconcile the parties with the king after their joint "movement to restore democracy" threatened to undermine the peace process.
The government responded to the parties’ agitations by charging senior leaders with crimes of corruption committed while they were in office. A source close to the palace said the move was the king’s decision. "It’s like, ‘If you screw around with me, I’ll screw around with you’," he said.
Last night, the seven largest parties were due to have an emergency meeting with the king, apparently aimed at forming a government of national unity. They met beforehand to agree a common line.
Arjun Nasing KC, the spokesman for the Congress, the largest party in the dissolved parliament, warned the resignation may not be enough to bring them back on board. He said: "This movement is not simply to change the government. There are some fundamentals such as reactivating the constitution and democracy."
There were mixed signals from the Maoists during they day. One member of their negotiating team said the peace process would be slowed down but Dr Baburam Bhattarai, the Maoists’ chief negotiator, said: "It doesn’t make any difference. The real power is the king. Whoever is in front doesn’t matter. They are just a pawn of the king, the Royal army and the United States."
The roots of the current crisis go back to the palace massacre in which King Birendra and eight other members of the Royal Family were shot by the crown prince, who was then shot in turn. The succession passed to King Gyanendra but,
in late 2001, the death toll in the Maoist war began to mount alarmingly. Parliament was dissolved a year ago after a feud within the ruling Congress Party, and when elections failed to materialise last autumn, the king intervened and appointed his own government.
The political parties, who had fought for an end to absolute monarchy in 1990, were appalled. The Maoists claim the king’s seizure of power laid bare the fact that the palace was the real power in the country and that the democratic gains of 1990 were an illusion.