KATHMANDU In a siege-like atmosphere, Nepalese politicians on Tuesday huddled in a Kathmandu parliament building ringed by barbed wire and surrounded by riot police to thrash out the young Himalayan republic's first federal constitution.
But with the Supreme Court's deadline only five days away, politicians were gloomy about finalising a charter amid protests by those demanding the country be divided into states along ethnic lines.
"It is not possible to follow rules and regulations and promulgate the constitution within this short time now," said Nilambar Acharya, chairman of the Constitutional Committee that must send a draft of the statute to the assembly for approval.
Failure to meet Sunday's deadline will deepen the political turmoil that has destabilized Nepal since the end of a 10-year-old Maoist conflict in 2006 and subsequent abolition of the monarchy.
Outside parliament, the streets were deserted as helmeted police with plastic shields cordoned off the area. In other parts of the city and elsewhere in Nepal, protesters stoned or burned vehicles whose drivers defied a general strike, police spokesman Binod Singh said.
Slightly larger than Greece, Nepal has more than 100 ethnic groups, many demanding separate provinces. They are backed by small parties, especially in the southern plains region.
Maoists, who control 40 percent of the 601-seat special assembly tasked to prepare the constitution, say they want to create states "recognising ethnic identities" of protesting groups.
However, Ram Chandra Paudel, a senior leader of the centrist Nepali Congress party, said the creation of states along ethnic lines would upset social harmony in a country dependent on aid and tourism.
"It is a very difficult situation," Paudel told Reuters. "We are trying hard to avoid further trouble and reach a consensus."
The assembly has missed several deadlines in the past and the Supreme Court has ruled no more extensions will be allowed.
The court has asked politicians to arrange an alternative if they fail to meet the deadline. Some say the assembly work could be passed on to the parliament. Fresh elections are seen as unlikely.
Instability in Nepal has regional implications for energy-hungry China and India who are eyeing its immense potential to generate hydroelectric power.
(Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Jeremy Laurence)