KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal's Maoist former rebels put thousands of their ex-fighters under government control on Saturday, in a move expected to boost a peace process that ended 10 years of civil war.
Maoist chief Prachanda and Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal signed a joint declaration giving control of more than 19,000 former fighters to a special committee headed by the prime minister in a public function telecast live from a Maoist camp.
The move came a week after a United Nations peace mission, which has monitored Nepal's edgy transition to peace after the war ended in 2006, wrapped up its operations in the country.
The mission left with a warning that continued wrangling between the Maoists and other political parties could scupper the peace process.
The Nepal government now faces the thorny task of integrating the Maoist fighters, currently housed in camps, into the security forces or rehabilitating them into civilian life in the Himalayan republic.
The Maoists have been asking that their fighters be absorbed into the national army, but the military and the government have so far been unwilling to do so, saying the national army cannot accept a politically indoctrinated cadre.
"This task will take some time and can be possible with the cooperation of all political parties, Nepali people and the support of international community," Prachanda said in his address to the fighters. The camp was at Shaktikhor, 80 km (50 miles) south of the capital Kathmandu.
The future of the fighters is key to the stability of a country that acts as a buffer between China and India, who compete for influence in the nation.
Nepal has abundant potential to generate hydroelectric power and sits on the source of rivers that supply water for millions of people in India, and is seen by China as crucial to the security of Tibet.
The Maoists briefly headed a coalition after their surprise victory in the 2008 election for a special constituent assembly meant to draw up the country's first republican constitution.
But the alliance fell apart and Prachanda resigned as prime minister in a conflict with the president over control of the national army. Nepal has been in political turmoil ever since.
The nation's parliament has failed to elect a new leader since June last year when Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal quit under pressure from the Maoists, who are seeking to return to power. Nepal is still acting as caretaker prime minister.
The Maoists, who control 40 percent of seats in the parliament, have failed to muster enough support required to form a new government.
More than 16,000 people were killed in the Maoist conflict which raged in desperately poor Nepal from 1996 to 2006.
Editing by Matthias Williams and Alex Richardson