KATHMANDU, Jan 22 (IANS) - Five years after they signed a peace accord and ended their decade-old armed insurrection, Nepal's Maoists Saturday began the process of formally handing over their guerrilla army to the government, marking a new phase in the peace negotiations.
In the presence of ministers, the chiefs of the Nepal Army and state security agencies as well as diplomats and UN representatives, Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda signed a joint agreement with Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal at the camp of the People's Liberation Army in Shaktikhor in southern Chitwan district, concurring that from Saturday, the PLA was under the control of a special committee formed for the integration and rehabilitation of the guerrilla army.
There are nearly 20,000 PLA combatants living in 28 camps nationwide. Till last week, they were under the supervision of the UN.
However, with the UN Mission in Nepal exiting Jan 15 midnight, the supervision was taken over by the special committee that is headed by the prime minister.
Nepal reminded the PLA that those who opt to join the state security agencies would no longer have any political affiliation and would be taken as per their qualifications.
The Maoist leadership said it was entering the new phase with bias towards none and solely with the thought of serving the people in their hearts.
Prachanda said the PLA, that had an immense contribution in the transformation of Nepal into a secular, federal republic, was ready to work for peace, a new constitution and a new and prosperous nation.
The PLA flag - two AK-47s crossed over Mt. Everest with a red star shining high - was replaced by the national flag of Nepal in the Shaktikhor cantonment to symbolise the transfer of control of the PLA from the Maoist party to the state.
The US became the first member of the international community to hail the handover.
Issuing a statement, the American embassy in Kathmandu said the transfer constituted a welcome and positive step forward in the peace process and commended the Maoists for demonstrating their commitment to democracy by separating themselves from the combatants.
However, after the initial euphoria, the government faces a rocky road over the fate of the PLA.
While Prachanda is seeking the fighters' induction in the army en masse, keeping the PLA identity intact and possibly keeping the same designations they enjoyed in the PLA, the demands are likely to be opposed by the ruling parties as well as the state army.