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Nepal's king gives up absolute power

Move comes after massive protests, intense world pressure

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In a TV address Friday, King Gyanendra calls for Nepal's political parties to pick a prime minister.

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KATHMANDU, Nepal (CNN) -- King Gyanendra of Nepal told his nation Friday that he would return political power to the people, an apparent concession in the face of massive protests that have paralyzed the tiny Himalayan kingdom.

But hard-line protesters scoffed at the speech, declaring it wasn't conciliatory enough. Their protests, which ranged from 120,000 to 200,000 people, continued on the outskirts of the capital in defiance of a street curfew that was extended to midnight Friday.

Posters of the king were burned, along with tires.

In a nationally televised address, Gyanendra said, "Executive power of the kingdom of Nepal, which was in our safekeeping, shall from this day, be returned to the people." (Watch the king discuss what he's doing "in the interest of the people" -- 2:05)

He called upon the striking seven-party alliance to come up with the name of a prime minister candidate, saying that elections should be held as soon as possible. The present Cabinet would function until the prime minister's appointment, he said. (Watch as the king's announcement is met with skepticism -- 2:13)

The seven parties -- a disparate grouping of political beliefs -- plan to start meeting Saturday, politicians said.

Political leaders cited positive aspects in the king's remarks, such as the intention to hand over political power and somewhat of an admission that the effort to rule absolutely failed.

As for his own role, Gyanendra plans to retain the status he had before seizing power 14 months ago, Information Minister Shirish Rana said, explaining the king's role as guardian of the constitution and symbol of national unity. The elected prime minister would lead a security council that controls the Nepalese army, Rana added.

Government officials said they believe the king's announcement is a sufficient gesture. "There's no reason why the political parties should not take this offer," Rana said.

Worldwide pressure built on the king this week to loosen his grip on power and restore democracy in the country, besieged by a tenacious Maoist insurgency that began in 1996 and resulted in the deaths of at least 13,000 people.

The country has a strategic location, nestled between China and India. The West and democratic world would find the establishment of a communist republic there a major threat.

Amid fears of regional instability, diplomats from neighboring India, the world's largest democracy with close ties to Nepal, met with Gyanendra to resolve the crisis, and U.S. officials spoke out as well.

Shawn McCormack, U.S. State Department spokesman, lauded the move and urged all sides to "refrain from violence" as the political process proceeds, saying "the Nepalese deserve a democratic government that can return stability and peace to their country."

He added, "We are pleased that King Gyanendra's message today made clear that sovereignty resides with the people. We expect the king to live up to his words, and allow the parties to form a government. We urge the parties to respond quickly by choosing a prime minister and a Cabinet."

Crisis had escalated

The crisis escalated in recent days, with stiff curfews and street violence, resulting in the deaths of at least 14 people.

Maoist rebels joined the seven political parties in calling for a general strike and protests earlier this month. They vow to continue until the king leaves.

About 130,000 people took to the capital's streets Friday to call for the return of democracy. A rally the day before drew as many as 115,000 protesters and prompted the government to impose a curfew.

Ian Martin with the Kathmandu office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees called it the worst government crackdown since Gyanendra seized absolute power last year. Martin complained that the restrictions on movement were making it difficult for the U.N. organization, other civil rights groups and journalists to monitor the protests.

Government officials have said the protesters include Maoist "terrorists." Gyanendra justified his February 2005 takeover by accusing the government of failing to control the Maoist rebels and their threat to set up a communist regime.

Rana, the information minister, defended the recent security measures.

"We can not afford a large unmanageable group of people entering the city that can be violent," he said.

According to Rana, protesters are free to demonstrate as long as they stay outside the capital.

Gyanendra came to the throne in 2001, following a royal massacre that killed his older brother King Birendra and other members of the family. Birendra's son Dipendra, who carried out the killings, died three days after the massacre, leaving Gyanendra to assume the throne.

CNN's Satinder Bindra and Journalist Sumnima Udas contributed to this report

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