KATHMANDU, Feb 6 (AFP): A general strike called by Maoist rebels to disrupt controversial elections this week brought towns across Nepal to a standstill Sunday, witnesses said.
In the capital Kathmandu, many traders opened their stores in the morning but later downed shutters, as streets began emptying of vehicular traffic. Soldiers and army personnel launched foot and vehicle patrols.
Police said Kathmandu had been quiet Sunday.
"There have not been any reports of violence in the valley so far. Everything is quiet and normal," said an officer from police headquarters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In Nepalgunj, 510 kilometres (320 miles) west of Kathmandu, the strike brought activities to a standstill, a local journalist said, speaking by telephone from the gateway town to the Maoist dominated mid-western region.
"Normal life has been severely disrupted. Only vehicles belonging to security forces are on the streets," said Janak Nepal from the town of around 150,000 people close to the Indian border.
The rebels -- who want to depose King Gyanendra and turn the poverty-stricken Himalayan nation into a communist state -- called the week-long strike to disrupt Wednesday's scheduled local elections.
Nepal's foreign minister rejected international criticism of a recent crackdown at a press conference Sunday night, and called on political parties to join the elections.
The minister defended a recent crackdown that resulted in the detention of hundreds of political activists.
"What we have been doing here in our country is nothing new and far from accepted norms and practices that should provoke the hue and cry that we are witnessing these days," Ramesh Nath Pandey said.
Despite recent criticism from India, the United States, Japan, the European Union and Britain, Nepal's was not facing international isolation, the minister said.
"It is true that some countries are aspiring undesirably to influence the internal affairs of Nepal after certain forces within the country have surrendered themselves to the mercy of foreign powers, seeking blessing to restore their ailing political privileges," Pandey said.
PIT from Kathmandu adds: at least 40 Nepali Congress activists, including former Lawmaker Ashok Koirala, were arrested from Biratnagar Municipality Sunday for protesting against police firing involving two Nepali Congress leaders.
Hundreds of party workers demonstrated against the police firing yesterday targetting at two Nepali Congress leaders, including NC Morang district president Amrit Aryal, in Biratangar, NC office secretary Sobhakjar Parajuli said.
They chanted slogans against the government and demanded action against the policemen who opened fire.
Similarly, 12 journalists were arrested from Rajbiraj in Saptari district from a peaceful rally Sunday. They were arrested as they rallied to oppose Saturday's arrest of journalists in various parts of the country, according to the sources at the Federation of Nepalese Journalists.
Life was totally paralysed throughout Nepal today in response to the Maoists call for general strike to disrupt the polls. The strike affected normal life across Nepal including Biratnagar, Pokhara, Birgunj, Bhairahawa, Butawal, Palpa, Chitawan, Nepalgunj and other major parts of the country besides Kathmandu.