Over 30,000 people who had walked in from surrounding villages began marching along the main road to the heart of Kathmandu

KATHMANDU: Nepalese police opened fire on tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters who defied a curfew and marched toward the capital on Thursday, killing at least three and injuring dozens more, witnesses and hospital officials said.

Separately, security forces fired on anti-monarchy protesters in a southwestern Nepal town wounding at least 26, according to the Defence Ministry.

Doctors at the Model Hospital in Kathmandu said three people died and more than 40 were in a critical condition, mostly with head injuries, after police fired rubber bullets and live rounds at the crowd.

Hospital stormed

Police stormed the hospital later in the evening and seized the bodies. Hospital staff reached by telephone said police did not give a reason for taking the bodies.

The clash occurred in the Kalanki neighborhood on the western edge of Kathmandu, said Kunjan Aryal of INSEC-Nepal, a rights group.

``Our volunteers have already picked up several wounded people and there are reports of many more wounded waiting for rescue,'' said Aryal, whose office is in the neighbourhood.

At the nearly two dozen protests across the capital, the mood ranged from peaceful to violent. Stretches of the main road that circles Kathmandu were littered with bricks and burning tyres as police battled protesters.

Police post attacked

At least one police post was attacked and its windows smashed by bricks.

The violence came as an estimated 30,000 people who had walked in from surrounding villages began marching along the main road to the city centre. The group at Kalanki was among the largest of several that gathered at different entry points to the city to continue mass protests against King Gyanendra's rule.

A line of policemen blocking the road into the city first tried to turn the crowd back with tear gas, and then opened fire with rubber bullets and live ammunition, witnesses said.

An Associated Press reporter who reached the site late in the afternoon said police and protesters were still clashing. Police were getting reinforcements and more tear gas shells.

Some of the protesters picked up tear gas canisters and tossed them back at police.

The Defence Ministry said in a statement that security forces were compelled to fire at the protesters at Gulariya, 500 km south west of Kathmandu, because the situation was getting out of control and it was necessary to use force.

At least 13 policemen were wounded in the clashes.

Following the clash, the Government announced over state-run television that it was extending the initial 2 a.m. to 8 p.m. curfew on Thursday by eight hours until Friday morning.

The capital had been poised for confrontation on Thursday, with soldiers and police patrolling the streets as thousands of protesters from surrounding areas headed toward the city limits, where troops had orders to shoot at sight anyone breaking a curfew.

Demonstrators were marching toward Kathmandu from several directions, and thousands of people protested just outside the curfew area in the suburb of Gangabu, watched by a line of police and soldiers.

Bid to foil rally

District administration officers said the curfew was necessary to prevent opposition parties from holding a huge rally, planned for Thursday, to demand that King Gyanendra loosen his grip on power.

Residents in parts of central Kathmandu came out onto their roofs, whistling and banging plates. People used mobile phones to call each other and send text messages, trying to draw each other out for demonstrations.

``We are ready to sacrifice our lives for the nation because we are about to be killed, but we are not concerned about that,'' said Sangam Poudel, a 22-year-old student. ``It is for the nation and without the nation there is no life.''

Passes denied

Diplomats, journalists and human rights monitors were not issued passes allowing them onto the streets on Thursday as they had been in the past.

Police tried to keep media and rights workers away from any protests, escorting some foreign journalists back to their hotels.

A foreign diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the restriction on passes was intended to keep observers from seeing what was going on in the streets.

Still, opposition leaders met on Thursday and decided to go ahead with the protest, starting with rallies at Kathmandu's major entry points.

Nepal at its most volatile

Two weeks of often violent protests and a general strike against palace rule have brought the Himalayan kingdom to a halt, leaving cities short of food and fuel and Nepal at its most volatile since King Gyanendra ascended the throne 14 months ago. The royal Government has responded harshly, claiming that communist insurgents now allied with the opposition have infiltrated rallies to instigate violence. Police have beaten, tear gassed and arrested thousands of protesters.

Before Thursday's clash, security forces had killed at least 10 people, including some pro-democracy protesters shot dead on Wednesday, since the opposition launched a general strike in the kingdom on April 6.

On Wednesday, officials claimed security forces opened fire only after being shot at during an assault by brick-throwing protesters in Chandragadi.

The Government has made such claims in the past, but no shootings by protesters have been independently verified.

``The events show how desperate the present royal regime is. It is becoming paranoid,'' said Dhruba Adhikary of the independent Nepal Press Institute.``The movement is getting popular. It is expanding and growing.'' AP