Police in Nepal investigated the possibility of an attack after a bus fire killed seven people in the volatile southern region bordering India, as Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala demanded tighter security before elections.

The Terai Army, which is pressing for greater rights for the south, claimed responsibility for the blaze, saying the bus was defying a strike in the region, according to Nepalnews.com. More than 20 people were injured in the fire that broke out late yesterday in the Bara district, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of the capital, Kathmandu.

Koirala yesterday asked for a briefing on security for a weekend rally in the south by the seven parties in the ruling coalition, as part of campaigning for April 10 elections. The vote is for a National Assembly that will write a new constitution for the nation of 28 million people.

The government has pledged that the constitution will provide greater rights for ethnic minorities, including proportional representation and a degree of autonomy. More than 40 ethnic groups are represented in Nepal’s population.

Eight people were injured in a bomb attack at a rally by the seven main parties in Kathmandu earlier this week to mark the start of the election campaign. Police arrested two people involved in the attack, according to Nepalnews.com.

Two organizations from the Terai claimed responsibility for bomb attacks in Kathmandu on Sept. 2 that killed two people and injured more than 20 others.

Strikes, Shutdowns

Ethnic groups in the Terai region have organized general strikes, transport shutdowns and demonstrations since last year as part of a campaign for greater rights.

Security in the region, one of Nepal’s main trade routes to India, has “diminished markedly” and there are now more than two dozen armed and criminal groups operating there, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said in an October report.

Nepal’s elections are part of a November 2006 peace accord that ended a decade-long civil war in which the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) fought to overthrow the monarchy. Under the agreement, the rebels became a political party, joined the government and sent 30,000 fighters to camps under United Nations supervision.

The Nov. 22 ballot for the National Assembly was postponed after the Maoists quit the Cabinet in September when other parties refused to immediately scrap the monarchy. The rebels said supporters of King Gyanendra may undermine the election.

The Maoists returned last month after lawmakers agreed to amend the interim constitution to declare Nepal a republic, subject to ratification at the National Assembly’s first meeting.

Gyanendra became king in 2001 after his brother, King Birendra, and most family members, were shot dead in a domestic dispute. He dismissed the government in February 2005 for failing to end the Maoist insurgency.

The king was forced to reinstate Parliament and end his absolute rule in April 2006 after demonstrations and strikes.

More than 13,000 people were killed in the civil war, which damaged the tourism-dependent economy. Located between India and China, Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries, where about 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

As Maoist chief Prachanda was warning of violence and possible assassination of political leaders ahead of the April election, a blaze in a packed bus, reportedly caused by a blast, killed seven passengers in trouble-torn south Nepal and injured nearly two dozen more.

Krishna Moktan, who along with his wife and two kids had on Friday boarded the bus heading towards the frontier town of Birgunj from Janakpur in the Terai plains, said the vehicle stopped at one place where two women passengers got down.

“I was hanging near the door,” he said. “Suddenly, there was an explosion and a fire started.

“I was lucky to be near the door and jumped out. But my family, who were sitting inside, sustained injuries,” he added.

Initial reports said the bus was engulfed in fire at about 5 pm on Friday while nearing a bridge on the Nijgarh-Pathaliya section of a highway in Bara district in the Terai plains.

There were over 100 passengers in the bus.

The seven victims were burnt to death in the inferno and the charred bodies had not been identified till Saturday morning.

At least 27 passengers were injured, five of them critically.

Though there was no immediate official statement on what had caused the carnage, a local daily Saturday said a little known militant outfit from the plains had claimed responsibility.

The Himalayan Times daily said a man, calling himself John, told the newspaper on telephone that the Terai Army had used nitrogen gas to cause the fire as the bus had flouted the three-day shutdown call given by the group.

The driver of the bus is absconding.

The disaster occurred even as Maoist supremo Prachanda told journalists in the capital Friday that he had heard hired killers were assembling to assassinate top political leaders and try to sabotage the April 10 election.

“The next two to three months are not going to be easy,” he said.

Nepal police made public the same day the identities of two men who, it said, had thrown a bomb at a mass meeting of the seven ruling parties on Monday.

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