KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal's former Maoist rebels on Tuesday handed over control of their fighters and weapons to the national army, in a move likely to bolster a faltering peace process nearly six years after a civil war ended.
Thousands of Maoist fighters, who battled the Nepal Army during the decade-long civil war, have been housed in camps across the volatile Himalayan republic waiting to join the national army.
Their future is key to the stability of the nascent republic tucked between Asian giants China and India, both of which jostle for geo-political influence over it.
The former combatants' roughly 3,500 weapons have been kept in metal containers in seven camps watched by a multi-party committee.
"The government will put the cantonments, combatants, physical property and the weapons under the control of the Nepal Army from today (Tuesday)," said Finance Minister Barsa Man Pun, a Maoist member of the committee.
"The security of the camps and their infrastructure will now be the responsibility of the Nepal Army," Pun told Reuters.
Following the decision, "army personnel are on their way to the Maoist camps to assume their charge", army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ramindra Chhetri said.
Politicians said the move would likely boost the peace process after a conflict that killed more than 16,000 people before ending in 2006.
But some Maoist leaders said they would protest against the handover, calling it a "surrender", according to local media reports.
The Maoists are in the political mainstream after emerging as the biggest party in the election for a special assembly tasked to prepare Nepal's first constitution after the abolition of the 239-year-old monarchy in 2008.
The assembly has missed several deadlines to prepare a draft of its first republican charter because of differences between parties over the future type of government. The assembly must finish the draft by May 27, when it faces dissolution.
"It is an important milestone in the peace process," Ram Sharan Mahat, a member of the opposition Nepali Congress party, said of the Maoist decision to end control over their fighters.
But the Maoists and Nepal's other main political parties are haggling over the terms and criteria of the former combatants' selection and the duration of their training, which the Maoists want shortened.
Political parties have limited the number of former combatants to be absorbed in the army to 6,500, out of a total of 9,700 who wanted to join. The others have to be retired with the government offering them financial help and other training to rejoin the civilian life.
The Nepal army was initially reluctant to take the Maoists, their former foes, saying they were politically indoctrinated.
Editing by Alessandra Rizzo