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Rain, police douse Nepal protest

'Sea of people' in Kathmandu marches despite king's concession


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Violent Demonstrations

KATHMANDU, Nepal (CNN) -- Heavy rain and a strong police presence doused a protest Saturday by about 200,000 marchers who headed toward the palace in another show of opposition to the absolute rule of Nepal's King Gyanendra, who vowed to return political power "to the people" the day before.

The weather changed abruptly halfway through an eight-hour government curfew, which the protesters ignored to enter Kathmandu. Police used tear gas and barriers to prevent the crowd from storming the king's residence and the Central Secretariat. Armed soldiers stood guard at the palace.

The capital was under a curfew until 8 p.m. (10:15 a.m. ET).

Police estimated the size of the crowd at 200,000, about the same number who protested outside the capital on Friday.

CNN Correspondent Satinder Bindra said shoes, soggy flags and debris were left behind as the protesters retreated.

However he reported that mobile phone services had been cut off and the situation remained "serious."

The daily pro-democracy demonstrations, some accompanied by violence, are in their third week. At least 14 people have died. Police were ordered to shoot any demonstrators trying to enter the capital.

Some of the hard-line demonstrators -- many of them young people -- scoffed at the king's speech Friday. Demonstrators have said they won't stop their protests until Gyanendra actually steps down.

As police struggled with Saturday's protests, a bomb exploded south of Kathmandu, toward Nepal's border with India, and police said they were investigating the incident, which they were blaming on Maoist rebels.

Government officials have said Maoist "terrorists" are among the demonstrators, and they blamed them for helping to incite the discontent.

Gyanendra seized power in February 2005, after accusing the government of failing to control the Maoists, who began their insurgency in 1996 with the goal of forming a communist government. At least 13,000 people have died.

On Saturday, representatives from seven major political parties and Maoists -- who launched the daily protests and strikes April 6 -- met to begin the process of forming a new government, including finding a candidate for prime minister. Political observers said reaching consensus would be difficult, and the role of the Maoists in any government was uncertain.

The protests, which escalated in recent days, had been confined to an area ringing the capital, and police were ordered to shoot anyone who crossed into the city of 1.5 million.

As waves of protesters entered Kathmandu, security cordons went up around the Narayanhity Palace and Central Secretariat for the first time since the pro-democracy demonstrations began.

Protesters, who seemed in good spirits, shouted Shouting "Down with Gyanendra" and "Up with democracy," and some carried red communist flags, symbolizing the rebel Maoist movement.

The protests and curfews have paralyzed Kathmandu, causing shortages of food and goods, and forcing residents to shop during the brief times that the curfews are lifted. Kathmandu's streets have been mostly empty.

Protesters on Friday burned posters of the king, set tires and buildings ablaze and threw rocks at police. Video showed angry demonstrators throwing furniture and other items onto a pile for burning.

In his speech Friday, the king declared the intention of holding elections, and said he would retain the status had before he seized power 14 months ago. A government official, Information Minister Shirish Rana, told CNN that those roles would be guardian of the constitution and symbol of national unity.

Rana said that under the constitution, the Nepalese army will be controlled by a security council headed by the elected prime minister. Gyanendra said the present Cabinet would continue to function until the prime minister's appointment.

"Executive power of the kingdom of Nepal, which was in our safekeeping, shall from this day be returned to the people," the king said in a nationally televised address.

Worldwide pressure built on the king this week to loosen his grip on power. There were fears of chaos and regional instability if the besieged king didn't make concessions.

The country has a strategic location, nestled between China and India. Diplomats from India, the world's largest democracy, which has close ties to Nepal, met with the king this week, and U.S. officials have spoken out to encourage Nepal to restore democracy.

CNN's Satinder Bindra and Prithvi Banerjii contributed to this report.

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