With violence surging across rural Nepal, villagers and political leaders opposed to Maoist rebels charge that the guerrillas have stepped up extortion and driven thousands from their homes.
Dhana Kumari Ghale, 82, is suffering from bronchitis. She says she and her farmer husband fled their village in eastern Nepal for an uncertain life on the road after Maoists demanded money to fund their seven-year "people's war."
"We have been forced by the Maoists to be refugees in our own country," said Ghale, interviewed by a state television reporter.
"At a time when we don't have enough to eat and the bitter winter is coming, how can we pay a huge amount of money to the Maoists?" she asked.
The Maoists say their insurgency, which has claimed more than 8,200 lives, is aimed at improving the lives of villagers by overthrowing the monarchy and the rest of the Kathmandu-based elite.
Last week the rebel leadership said it would not destroy infrastructure or public projects except those "run directly by the United States." The Maoists also said they would stop political killings.
But Nepal's mainstream parties say their rural rank-and-file still live in a climate of fear, as they are particular targets of extortion and violence. The five main parties estimate around 400 of their activists have been killed by the Maoists since the start of the insurgency in 1996.
D.L. Paudel, the secretary of the Nepal Communist Party-United Marxist and Leninist (NCP-UML) in the Ramechhap district 268km east of Kathmandu, said Maoist intimidation was widespread in his part of the kingdom.
"Maoists knock on each and every village door and demand a contribution of between 5,000 and 50,000 rupees (US$67 to US$675 dollars)," Paudel said.
"They also demand from each family two young volunteers, be they sons or daughters, to join the rebels' `People's Liberation Army,'" he said.
He gave the example of Katap Bahadur Basnet, a 68 year-old who used to serve with the Gurkhas.
The Maoists consider the Gurkha program imperialism and last week took one British and six Nepalese military recruiters hostage for two days as a protest.
Paudel said the former Gurkha was harassed by Maoist activists who demanded he pay 50,000 rupees and send two children to the rebel army.
"After he said he couldn't pay he was severely beaten, leaving deep blue marks on his back," Paudel said.
The army has launched a relief drive near Maoist-controlled areas. State television Saturday showed a line of villagers some 2km-long waiting for food, medicine and blankets handed out by troops.
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