KATHMANDU Nov 19 Hundreds of former Maoist fighters dressed in camouflage uniforms queued up in Nepal on Saturday for interviews to determine whether they wanted to join the army or re-enter civilian life, five years after the end of a civil war.
More than 19,000 former rebels have lived in camps since the decade-long conflict ended. Their fate is seen as crucial to the stability of the republic, wedged between India and China, and has been a major sticking point in the subsequent peace process.
"I will opt for the integration into the army which will give me an opportunity to serve the country," said 28-year-old Arjun Adhikari, one of the former fighters.
The government and the main opposition parties agreed this month to integrate 6,500 of the fighters into the army. The rest will be given education, vocational training and financial aid of up to $11,500 to start a new life.
The military establishment had resisted integrating thousands of their former enemies into the army.
As a compromise, the roles of the Maoists will be restricted to non-combat operations such as the construction of development projects, emergency rescue operations and patrolling forests.
Nepali monitors also began a recount of the exact number of the fighters still living in seven camps in the Himalayan nation. They believe some of the ex-fighters could have left the settlements or died.
The camps were monitored by the United Nations until January, when a government committee took over.
Balananda Sharma, the chief government monitor, told Reuters "the actual integration or rehab process" could begin after the interviews were completed, although the process could take some time.
The Maoists are now part of Nepal's political mainstream. A senior Maoist leader was elected prime minister in August.
Analysts said recounting the former rebels could speed up their integration into the army and the demolition of the camps, a process which in turn is expected to expedite the drafting of the country's first republican constitution.
"I want to go for voluntary retirement," said Sarita Pun Magar, wearing a Maoist army uniform and carrying her baby.
"My husband will join the army but I cannot do so because I have to raise my child," 30-year-old Magar said at the Shaktikhor camp, 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Kathmandu.
The first charter after the abolition of Nepal's 239-year-old monarchy was meant to be written by May 2010 but the deadline was extended until the end of this month because of disagreements over the future of the fighters.
Politicians say a special constituent assembly chosen to draft the constitution will most likely miss the new Nov. 30 deadline due to a stalemate between the Maoists, who dominate the assembly, and other parties over the form of government sain the new constitution. (Additional reporting by Yubaraj Sharma; Editing by Paul Tait)