KATHMANDU, Nepal – Police in southern Nepal opened fire on ethnic protesters blocking the nation’s main highway, killing two in fresh violence that threatened to escalate political tensions, officials said Sunday.
Police were trying to stop the protesters from blocking the main East-West highway when they were attacked with petrol bombs, spears and bricks around midnight, police official Bhim Dhakal said. He said that 25 policemen and several protesters were injured in two separate attacks.
The two protesters were killed in the Bhardaha and Rupani areas, about 160 kilometres (100 miles) southeast of the capital, Kathmandu, Dhakal said.
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A curfew was imposed to stop further violence.
The clashes are expected to escalate the tensions, just as monthslong protests by the Madeshi ethnic group over Nepal’s new constitution had eased over the past few weeks during a series of festivals in the Himalayan nation.
The Madeshi say the new constitution unfairly divides Nepal into seven states with borders that cut through their ancestral homeland. The Madhesis and other small ethnic groups also want the states to be larger and to be given more autonomy over local matters.
The protesters have imposed a general strike in southern Nepal since September and blocked the main border crossings with India, resulting in severe fuel shortages across Nepal.
At least 48 people have been killed in the protests since August. There is no official count of the injured.
India, which has close cultural ties with the Madhesi community, has expressed concern over the new violence.
Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup twitted that his government was “distressed at (a) loss of lives in police firing,” and that a political solution was required.
Nepalese authorities have been rationing gasoline for taxis and public buses, but there’s been no fuel for private cars.
Police have been escorting trucks through south Nepal at night to bring both passengers and cargo to cities in the north, including Kathmandu.
Talks between the protesting groups and government have made little progress, but both sides have said they would continue.
Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli called a meeting of the main political parties later Sunday to discuss the Madhesi demands.