Soldiers and armed police enforced a curfew in the Nepali capital yesterday and placed leading politicians under house arrest, thwarting a planned protest against the king, who seized absolute power last year.
Armored personnel carriers mounted with machineguns were stationed across Kathmandu, while thousands of soldiers and police in green and blue camouflage fanned out to guard almost every street, square and junction.
Police said about 200 people had been detained for violating the curfew.
Former Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and other leading politicians were put under house arrest before dawn yesterday, hours before the rally was due to take place to press King Gyanendra to restore democracy.
The crackdown was effective and the ancient square due to host the demonstration was deserted throughout the day. Police armed with rifles and machineguns sat on temple steps or took shelter from the sun under ornate pagodas.
More than 100 politicians and student activists were also detained on Thursday and mobile phone links cut.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was dismayed by the arrests, while the United States, the European Union, Japan and neighbor India joined in the criticism.
At Koirala's house, armed police prevented a Reuters team from entering, or meeting the former prime minister, who is spearheading a multi-party alliance against Gyanendra. Guards said phone lines to the house had been cut.
"This is an extreme form of dictatorship by the king," Koirala's Nepali Congress party said in a statement.
A dozen soldiers marched in single file past ancient temples in the famous Patan Durbar Square, empty of its usual crowd of foreign tourists. Vultures sunned themselves in deserted parks, and a rooster strutted past shuttered shops in the narrow streets of the old town.
The king says he was forced to take power last year to stem a Maoist insurgency that has killed more than 12,500 people since 1996. But his actions have left him increasingly unpopular and isolated, and he has so far failed to contain the rebellion.
Anti-Gyanendra protests have steadily gathered strength, with around 100,000 people demonstrating last week in the southeastern town of Janakpur.
Thousands had been expected to join yesterday's rally, despite a government-imposed ban on protests. Party activists said there had been demonstrations in other cities, and threatened more protests in Kathmandu when the curfew was lifted at 6 p.m. (local time).
A few hundred people carrying party flags marched through the nearby temple town of Bhaktapur, and students burned tires at Tribhuvan University, just outside the capital.
"Gyanendra, thief, leave the country," they chanted.
As the curfew took effect at 8 a.m., a bride dressed in a crimson red and gold-edged sari hurried home past a group of armed and helmeted policemen. A police van sped past carrying six activists arrested for staging a small protest.
"Down with the autocratic monarchy," the arrested men shouted.
"This curfew is wrong," said 35-year-old trader Umanath Gilal, on his way home minutes before the curfew went into force. "We can't do our business and earn a living. I won't be participating in the protests but I support the protesters."