NEPALESE acting king asserts royal family members were shot by accident

Sunday, June 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KATMANDU, Nepal (AP) _ Nepal's caretaker king said Sunday that eight members of the royal family were shot to death by accident, despite official reports that the crown prince killed his relatives in a dispute over his wedding plans.

The tragedy has left this Himalayan nation with a new king _ who some allege was the gunman _ clinging to life and raised questions about where the monarchy goes from here.

Crown Prince Dipendra _ who became the formal king upon the death of his revered, soft-spoken father _ was pictured in royal attire on page one of the government newspaper, The Rising Nepal. But the 29-year-old remains in critical condition in a hospital and his uncle, Prince Gyanendra, is acting king in his place.

Gyanendra issued a statement Sunday blaming ``accidental firing of an automatic weapon'' for the death of King Birendra, the queen and six other royals Friday. But he did not say who fired the weapon or explain how such an accident could have happened. Government officials and senior military sources inside the palace have maintained the royals were killed by Dipendra who then turned his gun on himself.

By mentioning the gunfire, Prince Gyanendra went further than The Rising Nepal, which referred to ``an unanticipated incident.'' Government officials were unavailable for comment Sunday as a five-day period of mourning has been declared closing offices.

Senior military and palace sources continued to tell The Associated Press on Sunday that the crown prince shot the family and then himself.

Prime Minister Girija Prasada Koirala said late Saturday that the government would investigate the killings in an apparent attempt to appease an angry public that is doubtful of both explanations. Many suspect the government's involvement in the deaths.

``I want to assure the people that the truth and facts of this incident will be made public,'' he said.

However, Nepal's constitution allows only the king to launch an investigation.

``An inquiry commission will be formed only by the king, not the government,'' Govind Raj Joshi, the most senior government minister after Koirala said. ``The government does not have any role to investigate this.''

Joshi said the country _ already suffering from a Maoist insurgency and opposition demands that Koirala resign over a government bribery scandal _ would overcome the tragedy.

``The country has become weaker but with the unified effort of the government, the palace and other political parties, we will become strong once again,'' he said.

Koirala visited Dipendra and three injured royal family members in the military hospital Sunday.

``The condition of King Dipendra is extremely critical,'' the prime minister told state-run radio. The report did not say whether Dipendra was still on life support, as reported Saturday.

Many ordinary Nepalis refuse to believe the crown prince slaughtered the royal family _ reportedly because his mother disapproved of his choice for a bride. Yet many said Sunday they found it difficult to accept the seriously wounded crown prince as their king.

``Even though we have a king, we don't,'' said Mohan Thapa, a businessman. ``We are not even sure if he's dead or alive. With all these rumors of him having killed King Birendra, it is hard to accept Dipendra as the new king.''

The varying explanations were worrisome to some.

``We believe and we're almost sure that the truth will never come out with the conflicting reports,'' said Krishna Pant, out riding a bicycle in the late morning.

Reflecting the grim mood in Nepal, Pant said: ``We have almost been orphaned. A king is our protector, but now we are left to fend for ourselves. If the king could not be safe, how can we be safe in a situation like this?''

Eight people died in the attack Friday night and three were injured. Details have remained sketchy, provided by military sources within the royal palace and officials familiar with the workings of the royal family.

Victims of the shooting included King Birendra, 55, Queen Aiswarya, 51, his brother and sister, Prince Nirajan, 22, and Princess Shruti, 24, who had two daughters.

The State Council confirmed that the others killed were Princess Sharada Shah and Princess Shanti Singh, both sisters of the king; Kumar Khadga Bikram Shah, Princess Sharada's husband; and Princess Jayanti Shah, a cousin to the late king.

The Council said that three others were injured: Gorakh Bikram, Princess Shruti's husband; Komal Shah, Prince Gyanendra's wife; and Prince Dhirendra, the king's youngest brother.

The survivors were in an army hospital closed to the public.

The royal family had gathered Friday night for dinner to discuss the wedding of Crown Prince Dipendra. Sources close to the family said that the prince wished to marry the daughter of a former government minister who is a member of the aristocratic Rana family, which ruled Nepal until 1951.

During a royal funeral procession at sunset Saturday, hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the streets, wailed, clasped their hands in respect and offered flowers as the bodies were taken for cremation according to Hindu rites.

The royal family no longer wields any formal power but are considered influential. Birendra was remembered Sunday as a monarch who worked to improve things for this highly impoverished, predominantly Hindu nation which only opened to the outside world 50 years ago.

``We have, in short, lost a visionary monarch who ably guided his nation through thick and thin,'' The Katmandu Post said in a page-one editorial. ``It will no doubt be difficult to replace such a leader who had won the people's heart and symbolized Nepal's move toward a modern era.''