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Nepal, since 1996
By Tom Cooper, with Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj
Aug 10, 2005, 04:52

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Nepal is a relatively small country in central Asia, landlocked between India and China, with population of some 23 million and some of the most rugged topography on Earth. Nepal was never colonized but remained totally isolated from the outside influence until 1951, when the country began a remarkable transition from a medieval kingdom without the most rudimentary infrastructure, to a modern nation.

After a short period in which this nation attempted to develop into a constitutional monarchy, in 1961, King Mahendra overthrew Nepal’s first-ever elected government and banned political parties. Mahendra’s rule began to shake only in 1990, when illegally-established political parties pressed the king and the government for change, after three decades of absolute monarchy. When the king refused, leftist parties united into the “United Left Front”, and joined forces with the Nepali Congress Party to launch strikes and demonstrations in all major cities. The authorities reacted with terror, killing more than 50. Nevertheless, the king capitulated, and – in April 1990 – he lifted the ban on political parties. An interim government was sworn in already in the same month, headed by Krishna Prasad Bhattarai as prime minister. Parliamentary elections in May 1991, were characterized as free and fair, and the Nepali Congress won 110 seats out of 205 to form the government.

The transition to democracy produced an array of leftist political parties, including the United Marxist and Leninist Party, and these defeated the Nepali Congress during elections in 1994, resulting in Nepal becoming the first communist monarchy. Nevertheless, one of Maoist parties, officially designated the “Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist” (CPN-M) – based in Rolpa district and led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai – was excluded from the political process. Apparently in response – modelling itself loosely on the teachings of China’s former leader, Mao Zedong – the CPN-M launched an armed insurgency, the “People’s War”, on 10 September 1995. The administration in Kathmandu was taken completely by surprise and the threat was not recognized as such until 19 February 1996, when Maoists launched a series of attacks against police stations, that culminated with a large clash, eight days later, that left a number of policemen dead.

According to unconfirmed reports in the Indian media, the insurgency was actually prepared since years, and was originally based on the same source claimed to be behind the notorious Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the New People’s Army of the Philippines, the Japanese Red Army, and the Shining Path movement in Peru: China. China regards Nepal as a lost territory, and is definitely interested in decreasing the Indian influence in the country. Surely enough, the rebels proved almost as well-organized then the Nepalese police, and almost equal to the Royal Nepalese Army – despite having only a very few pieces of heavy weapons: obviously, there must be a specific source for their equipment and ideology.

Other sources, however, see the background of insurgency in Nepal foremost in the Naxalite movement active in Indian federal states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. This emerged already in the 1960s, but began an armed insurrection only in the 1990s, when the Indian government reduced subsidies for agriculture, public health, education and poverty-eradication, supposedly exposing large sections of the population in some of the poorest and most populous Indian states to diseases, debt, hunger and starvation. In fact, starvation on any meaningful scale has not taken place, even if there have been isolated instances, mainly caused by circumstances peculiar to an individual – like depression or alcoholism. Uttar Pradesh is actually producing food surpluses – even in drought years, and starvation was always politically unacceptable, especially since – despite strong division of the population along the line of castes (and political mobilisation in this and surrounding Indian states takes place along caste lines) – the interest of the “lowest” Dalit castes and the “highest” Brahmin castes were usually the same.

Finally, of all the states in northern India, only Bihar has any significant Maoist movement and this is a direct result of abysmal mismanagement and a caste warfare. While other northern states are very poor, they were managed significantly better and the Maoists have no local support at all. Still, due to scarcely populated and policed borders between these states, the Maoists have always had it easy to smuggle weapons and supplies – most of which come from other terrorist groups in India, and are purchased with help of income from the Golden Triangle and base camps in Burma and Bangladesh.

Regardless if “imported” from China or India, the fact remains that the insurgency in Nepal was provoked by the neglect and discrimination of the small rural communities, and failure of successive governments to change the situation of impoverished. This created a situation where the lower casts with their great numbers of unemployed and adrift youngsters, were attracted to violent, extra-parliamentary groups.

Gurkha Traditions

The history of Nepalese military is based on its fierce Gurkha manpower, which for more than a century was prominent in the British Indian Army. In 1947, upon the partitition of British India into India and Pakistan and the division of the army between the two new countries, India retained six Gurkha regiments while the British kept four as the Brigade of Gurkhas, thus perpetuating a great military tradition. Ever since both countries are permitted to recruit Gurkhas in Nepal, which established a collective security agreement with India, in exchange for supply of arms and training.

In 1952, an Indian Military Mission was set up in Kathmandu, at request of King Tribhuvan, with the main task of reorganizing and modernizing the RNA. The Indians established three infantry brigades and Army Headquarters, but in 1969, Nepal cancelled the mutual security agreement and Indian troops were withdrawn. Nepal subsequently turned elsewhere for arms and aid, but Indian training of officers and men of the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) was still accepted. At the time the RNA had some 25.000 men (mostly Gurkhas), organized in two understrength divisions, and some 30.000 militia reserve of trained military veterans.

An air wing of the RNA was established in the 1960s. It grew to about 500 men in the early 1970s, equipped with about 45 miscellaneous British, American, and Soviet aircraft. This arm became a foundation for the Royal Nepal Air Force (RNAF), established in 1979, and mainly equipped with Indian-made HAL SA.316B Chetak helicopters (Aérospatiale SA.316B Alouette III helicopters, licence-built in India, as well as British-made Short Skyvan 3M transports. The number of Chetaks was usually reported as “between two and four”, but was in fact always higher than officially admitted. Like Skyvans, Chetaks were suited to operations to and from high-altitude runways, while rugged Skyvans proved also particularly valuable due to their short-take off and landing (STOL) performance.

In the 1980s, two Aérospatiale SA.330C Puma medium-lift helicopters were acquired, replacing worn out DHC-6 Twin-Otter 300s. They entered service with the Air Battalion of the 11th RNA Brigade, based – like the rest of the RNAF – at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan international airport (IAP).

Tasked primarily with flying VIP transport operations, in the 1990s the Royal Flight of the RNAF operated one BAe 748-2A (or Srs 275) transport, and two Aérospatiale AS.332L/L1 Super Puma VIP-transport helicopters. The later two were operated in civilian livery and markings, just like two Bell 206L-3/4 Long Ranger III/IVs, also acquired for VIP-transport duties.

RNAF’s main mission was providing reconnaissance and logistical support for the RNA, particularly for internal security, and to undertake border patrols. While Nepalese aircrews always received flying training at Indian Air Force establishments, and the maintenance support was mainly provided by contracted Indian (civilian) personnel, in the 1980s, China – which shared a treaty of friendship with Nepal – made an offer of Shenyang J-6 fighters (ASCC-Code “Farmer”). This was not taken up, and the RNAF had no combat element until very recently.

The sole BAe-748-2A Andover (formerly Hawker-Siddeley HS.748) is flown by the Royal Flight of the RNAF and deployed exclusively for VIP-transport. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

The No-War Period

Except what little is reported in mainstream media, very few reliable information about the flow of this war is available. The Government and RNA are keeping strict control over information given to the press, and news reports in the local media are inconsistent and unreliable. Certain is only that from 1996 until 2001, the Royal Nepalese Army was precluded from officially taking part in fighting, because the country’s constitution permits this only in if the king declared a state of emergency. Given that King Birendra refused to declare emergency and unleash the RNA (which was under his own control) because he considered that the Army should not be used against its own people, the RNA was out of battle for the first five years.

After first fire-fights and for the next five years, the insurrection has been waged through torture, killings, bombings, and intimidation against civilians and public officials. Later on, the insurgents began launching attacks on Nepalese Government facilities and commercial transport vehicles, and assassination attempts against Nepalese officials. Limited government finances – additionally hit through negative influence of insurgent activity on Nepal’s main income of foreign currency: tourism. Poor security infrastructure, insufficient communications, and a number of relatively soft targets made the country an attractive site for terrorist operations. Over the time, the Maoists established their governments in five of Nepal’s 75 districts, and then began expanding their operations over much of the rural countryside. They also forged cooperative links with extremist groups across southern Asia, including the LTTE on Sri Lanka.

The police lacked equipment and training to tackle the insurgents. With their strongholds well hidden in the inaccessible Midwestern hills – an ideal terrain for guerrilla warfare – the CPN therefore had little problems in spreading the war into two-thirds of Nepal’s 75 districts, establishing “people’s governments” in 22 districts and threatening to even encircle Kathmandu. The great Maoist offensive of 1998, for example, is known to have swept over large parts of Nepal, forcing the RNA to vacate a number of bases almost without fighting, and withdraw towards Kathmandu as the rebels captured a number of towns. With the army also thousands of refugees fled. In the areas under their control, the Maoists forcibly recruited thousands of young men and women into the “People’s Militia”, and killed everybody who refused to join. Immense taxes were imposed to every family known to have relatives in Ghurka units of the British, Indian and Nepalese Army as well.

Maoist Offensive of 2001

For the rest of the 1990s, the war was characterized by vicious rebel attacks that were causing even increasing problems for Nepalese authorities, especially the poorly-equipped police. Police fatalities in 1999 totalled 206 by mid-September, and two times as many Maoist attacks were reported than in the same period of 1998. Most of casualties occurred in small-scale attacks and due to mines.

Rivalries within the royal family caused additional problems. On 1 June 2001, drunk and outraged because of royal opposition to his choice of bride, Crown Prince Dipendra shot and killed his father, King Birendra, his mother, brother, sister and father’s younger brother, Prince Dhirendra, as well as several aunts, before turning the gun on himself. Two days later, the late King’s surviving brother Gyanendra was proclaimed king.

On 23 July 2001, the Government and Maoists declared a ceasefire. Three subsequent rounds of negotiations failed, however, and on 21 November, Maoist leader Prachandra unilaterally ended the ceasefire, declaring that under cover of the peace talks, the RNA was building up the barracks and military depot in Dang district as the centre of a planned military offensive against “revolutionary bases”.

The RNA was indeed exploiting the truce for reorganization and acquisition of new equipment, establishing a number of units capable of COIN operations. During the cease-fire, India – extremely sensitive about the security of its northern borders and caught off guard by the violence in Nepal – scrambled to supply dozens of truck-loads with arms, ammunition and advanced detection equipment, enabling the RNA to establish several new counterinsurgency units. The Government in Kathmandu reported that the Army was now reinforced to 54.000 troops, but this was questionable, even if by November 2001 the presence of Army units deployed in support of police forces became very obvious.

Already two days after Prachandra’s announcement, on 23 November 2001, Maoist units went into action, launching a surprising offensive, aimed at a number of police, army and other government facilities in several districts. This time, In Dang district, they overran an army base – killing the company commander and eleven soldiers – as well as two police stations, where nine policemen were killed. Major assault took place in Syangja District, where an estimated 1.000 rebels raided a police post, killed 14 policemen in a single attack and destroyed a RNA helicopter of unknown type. In additional raid in Salieri and Soukhumbu districts 27 policemen, four soldiers and two government officials were killed. Through the rest of November 2001, a number of ambushes was set up for Army convoys rushing to the aid of embattled garrisons, and additional casualties incurred. According to Government reports, while between 23 November and 27 December 2001, over 3.386 rebels surrendered, while 561 were killed, the Army lost 33 soldiers, while 64 policemen, 13 political activists, and 27 Nepalese civilians died in rebel attacks. Out of no less but 1.135 police stations in whole Nepal, only 110 were reported operational by late December.

The situation – and especially the rebel attack against RNA base in Dang District – eventually forced King Gyanendra to approve the state of emergency and mobilize the Army. The later was totally unprepared for the task of fighting a counterinsurgency war and had no operational experience – except for UN peacekeeping operations; but, from now on it was to bear the brunt of the war against CPN-M.

The RNA has very few heavy weapons, including 25 Ferret scout cars, delivered from the UK - one of which can be seen here. In addition to Ferrets, during the 1990s the RNA purchased some 135 BTR-70s, and few artillery pieces. (via Tom Cooper)


Initially during its deployment in war, the Army COIN operations remained limited in scope and scale – and especially in results. Through December 2001 and into January 2002, the RNA was carrying out “cordon and search” operations in several areas, using helicopters to haul supplies.

In January 2002, the first two Mil Mi-171MTV-5s, purchased at a price of $2.5 million each from Russia, arrived. These are known to have been equipped with night-vision goggles and GPS-navigation system (additionally, one of them is reportedly equipped with a FLIR-turret, manufactured in Israel), and were used for the first time already few days after delivery, in defence of Jumla and Kalikot districts where up to 200 Maoists were active.

In mid-January 2002, Mi-171s and SA.330s are known to have been deployed during the RNA counteroffensive in response to Maoist attacks against repetitor tower connecting Rolpa, Rukum and Jajarkot, which was destroyed, thus disrupting communication in these three districts. Armed with unguided rockets and machine-guns, the Mi-171s were soon flying vicious air strikes, even if their main role remained that of hauling supplies, as well as reconnaissance. Learning that the only possibility to move forward and operate directly against rebel strongholds was by air, the RNA began deploying Mi-171s and SA.330s for troop transport as well, but one of helicopters was damaged by ground fire during fighting in Rolpa District.

Obviously recognizing the significance of the new threat, in late January 2002, the Maoists attacked the Tumlingtar airport, in the eastern district of Sankhuwasabha, but appear not to have caused any major damage. In return, the new Mi-171s have been involved in a successful attack against a Maoist base in Rolpa, during which one of rebel military leaders, “Comrade” Badal, was killed.

In February 2002, the rebels stepped up their attacks, killing about 170 police and RNA officers, and shutting down the whole country when they called for a two-day strike. The RNA was meanwhile reported to be using excessive force in destroying Maoist strongholds in the forests of central Nepal, using artillery, mortars and bombs dropped from helicopters. A number of terrorist training camps and bases were claimed as destroyed, but reports about indiscriminate attacks and massive suffering of civilians surfaced as well.

The RNA meanwhile reported that its units had been capable of conducting “joint operations” at a level of battalion on temporary basis, and at a level of company at permanent basis. Facing increasing sophistication of Government forces, the Maoists have sought to engineer an immediate and massive mobilization in response. At the time, their strength was estimated at around 5.000 fighters in “regular” units, and thousands in the “People’s Militia”.

In early 2001, the flying component of the Royal Nepalese Army - the Air Battalion of the 11th Brigade - is operating a total of four Mi-171MTV-5 helicopters for transport, reconnaissance and - increasingly - attack purposes. Videos showing the helicopters attacking Maoist positions with bombs and unguided rockets were released, as well as soldiers firing light-machine guns out of the windows. At least two Mi-171s should also be equipped with FLIR-turrets of unknown origin, and are increasingly deployed for night operations. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

The King in Action

In May 2002, the Army claimed to have routed a major rebel assault on a RNA/police garrison in the remote, rebel-controlled western Rukum district, killing 150 guerrillas in exchange for five soldiers. In fact, on 27 May, Maoists launched a big attack against the RNA base at Khara. This eventually resulted in a debacle for the rebels, but only after very heavy RNA losses in men and equipment – and another crisis of the Nepalese government.

Namely, during the same month no less but 1.023 fatalities were reported within government forces and civilians, and it became obvious that the RNA could not put down the rebellion. The fact was that formidable hills and lack of ground communications made large-scale military RNA operations against the rebels almost impossible. The Government lacked transport- and reconnaissance capabilities and the RNA was actually completely dependent on local population to act as porters and guides.

Even in places where the RNA successfully suppressed Maoists, the situation could not be improved. While Libant and Tebang – two original Maoist strongholds, were retaken in the course of 2002, both had to be turned into fortresses in order to remain under control. Movement of Army troops or policemen outside these places was almost impossible. This tactics – holding key towns, communication centres and district headquarters and keeping lines of communication open by mounting limited seek and destroy operations – proved the be most of what RNA was able to do.

Disappointed by his government’s performance and all the time in touch with the rebels in an attempt to stop the war (a fact never acknowledged by the Palace) on 4 October 2002, King Gyanendra finally dismissed the government, and put off general elections. Sensing that – despite constitutional provisions – the RNA was not under civilian control any more, the new Government of Nepal announced a cease-fire, in late January 2003, resulting in cessation of armed hostilities to permit a new round of peace-talks. Thus ended the most intensive period of this war, during which some 2.000 Maoists, 1.200 security forces and up to 3.000 civilians had been killed (these are unofficial estimates from various sources: according to Government, 4.648 rebels, 245 RNA soldiers and 544 policemen were killed between November 2001 and January 2003).

Even if the cease-fire stopped bombings and kidnappings, the Maoists have not disarmed. On the contrary; seven additional rounds of negotiations, in April and May 2002, resulted only in another change of government in Kathmandu, with the royalist Prime Minister, Surya Bahadur Thapa, being appointed by the king. During the peace-talks, the Maoists issued a very comprehensive list of demands, including a new constitution and a series of national- and socio-economic reforms. They demanded the state of emergency to be recalled, the RNA to return to its barracks and put under civilian control, and then a new national army to be created by merging the Royal Army with People’s Army. Furthermore, they demanded Nepal to be made a secular state and unequal treaties – like the one with India from 1950 – to be repealed, and foreign troops on Nepalese soil withdrawn.
Considering their past experiences with different political formations of Nepal, the Maoists also demanded to talk directly with the King, rather than the government.

These demands were turned down – partially in the light of new rebel attacks against public buses, Government vehicles, school- and private vehicles with firebombs and explosive devices, launched by the Maoists in an effort to terrorize the population into observing a strike for which they called. Another reason for the failure of negotiations was new activity of special RNA COIN-units, which launched a number of clandestine operations to bottle up the Maoist leaders in several sectors. On 17 August 2002, for example, 19 rebels were ambushed and killed in Doramba and Ramechhap. Barely over a week later, on 28 August 2002, the cease-fire broke-down when the Maoists established a self-proclaimed “blockade” of Kathmandu and had brought their war to the capital by attacking soft targets and executing a number of political assassinations in the run-up to elections: within only a month, no less but 2.120 fatalities were reported on all sides. The string of deadly attacks was continued in September, October, and November 2002, and subsequently the war went into a new period of high-intensity fighting:

A new cease-fire was declared in January 2003. This time the new Government introduced an Integrated Security and Development Programme in districts that saw main Maoist activity, including Dailekh, Dang, Dolakha, Gorkha, Jajarkot, Kalikot, Lamjung, Pyuthan, Ramechhap, Salyan, Surkhet, Rolpa and Rukum, the rebels remained in effective control of seven out of 75 district centres. Certainly, their initial pro-people approach, that gained them much sympathy between the locals, transformed meanwhile into a campaign of violence, lawlessness, intimidation, and destruction. Simultaneously, the RNA went into a clandestine offensive, rebuilding intelligence on the Maoists and carrying out additional special operations well inside the areas considered under rebel control, killing and capturing several senior leaders.

Too Little, too Late: Indian and US Involvement

India, with a long history of dominating Nepal economically and politically, has been watching the People’s War in Nepal with growing concern. Concerned that violence unleashed by Maoists could spill over the border, in the recent years the Indian security authorities and Army gradually stepped up the military control of the border, while New Delhi is now playing a more direct role in this war. This help, however, has been a classic case of “too little, too late”. Kathmandu had long been pressing India for a significant replenishment and augmentation of arms, ammunition and military equipment, demanding at least 5.000 machine guns, 1.000 mortars, 40 mine-protected vehicles, and 800 troop-carrying vehicles, bullet-proof jackets and headgear, night vision devices, as well as helicopters.

India reacted to such calls for the first time in November 2001, and again in 2003: between June of that year and September 2004, India supplied at least two HAL Lancer light attack helicopters (based on HAL Cheetah, which in turn is licence-built SNIA SA.315B Lama), and several unarmed HAL Cheetahs. The Lancers are optimized for COIN-operations, and known to be compatible with jettisonable combination gun-cum-rocket pods, carrying 70mm rocket and 12.7mm machine-guns. The Lances became operational in early 2004, and were sighted on a number of occasions in attacks against Maoist rebels ever since.

The fighting erupted again in August 2003, and – reinforced with Indian arms – the RNA launched a major offensive in Rolpa District, in September, deploying a full battalion supported by helicopters. Some 100 suspected Maoists – and dozens of innocent civilians – were killed, and ever since the Royal Army is considered to be on offensive. During the following series of aggressive operations, RNAF helicopters were used again to attack rebels in support of Army offensives, and for armed reconnaissance missions. By March 2004 over 1.700 people were killed according to the government – most of them rebels. The RNA and the police continued suffering painful blows time and again, however, like on 1 March 2004, when at least 21 security personnel have been killed in a night Maoist attack on a telecommunications station in Bhojpur. Three days later, the RNAF helicopters conducted a massive series of attacks that left 50 suspected Maoists dead – along with a number of civilians.

The extension of US support for Nepalese government remains unclear. In accordance with the new policy of the “War on Terrorism”, in late 2001, Washington announced that Nepal would be supplied several “fully armed helicopters” to, “fight terrorism” in the country, but so far only deliveries of M16 rifles are known. After the visit by Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in Kathmandu – in 2002 – a military office was established at the US Embassy, and in 2003 up to 25 US military trainers are known to have been periodically deployed as defence advisors. The US ambassador to Nepal is Michael Malinowski, a veteran of the CIA-sponsored anti-Soviet “jihad” in Afghanistan. Correspondingly, in 2002 the FBI put the CPN-M to its list of terrorist organizations. Otherwise, however, Nepal appears to be only receiving economic assistance from the USA.

Understrength RNA

The RNA has meanwhile an authorized strength of 74.000 men, but keeps only some 68.000 soldiers under arms, while another 5.000 are under training at any time. The Army is organized in three divisions, Eastern, Central and Western. There is a total of 37 battalions in 18 infantry brigades (numbered 1 to 19; the 8 and 12 Brigades do not exist) and the Royal Palace Brigade, while there are also 47 independent companies. The Western Division has HQs at Nepalganj and controls 4, 5, and 18 Brigades, while the Central Division is based in Pokhara with 3, 6, and 7 Brigades. The Eastern Division has HQs at Itahari and commands 2, 9, and 19 Brigades. One additional Infantry Brigade is located in Kathmandu, together with the Palace Brigade and several smaller units, committed to holding the city centre, district headquarters and other key installations and facilities.

The RNA now includes also a significant number of specialized units, including the 10 Special Forces Brigade, 11 Air Assault Brigade, 13 Artillery Brigade, 14 Engineer Brigade, 15 Brigade, 16 Logistics and 17 Electric and Mechanical Engineer Brigades. The Royal Nepalese Army troops are now mainly equipped with US-made M16 rifles, as well as Indian-made SLRs and INSAS rifles. The RNA is known to have requested delivery of 10.000 additional INSAS rifles and two helicopters from India, in addition to sizeable quantities of defence stores (like mines, wire and protective gear) that were already delivered. A number of 105mm light guns and mortars calibre 120mm were delivered from China and Pakistan, but the Nepalese are now demanding India to deliver its 105mm artillery pieces.

Out of this force, only some 36.000 RNA troops are deployed in areas where there is Maoist activity, and the forces capable of launching offensive missions are limited to only two battalions. Besides, even if the Army is said to consider the helicopter a solution for all its problems, and to be employing them boldly (reports surfaced about each RNA helicopter being crewed by two pilots, to ensure that none is lost if one of pilots is hit), and despite all the recently acquired airframes, the Air Battalion of the 11th Brigade remains rather symbolic in size than a truly effective combat force, capable of providing close air support or flying interdiction strikes. Thus, the actual war-fighting capabilities of the RNA remain limited, even if it meanwhile plays a highly important role as a transport arm.

Neither the RNAF nor the RNA are known to have suffered any aircraft losses in combat this far, but the number of airframes known to have been delivered in the 1980s decreased in the recent years, while other – completely new airframes appeared on the surface. For example, out of three Skyvans, only one remains operational, and one of SA.330 Pumas is not operational any more, but their serials indicate that additional examples were delivered in the meantime. As of 2002, at least two Britten Norman BN-2s were still operational (and heavily used), together with two HAL Druvs. Remaining Skyvan was meanwhile replaced by two PZL M28.05 Skytrucks (both are camouflaged in dark green; see bellow for details about their serials), delivered in 2002. Two additional M-28s should have been delivered ever since, and the type has not only seen very intensive service, but was also modified to carry two 250kg bombs.

The sole BAe 748 is still frequently seen – most usually while hauling troops and cargo – together with (meanwhile) four Mi-17s and Mi-171MTV-5s, two Lancer gunships, two French-made AS.365 Ecureuils, two Chetaks, five Cheetahs, five Alevators, and at least one Eurocopter AS.350 Ecureuil. One of Mi-171s was grounded for some time after being hit by ground fire, in 2004, while negotiations with Russia for delivery of two Mi-24s were cancelled due to high operating costs. Russians have since lowered their prices and are pushing for delivery nevertheless. The RNAF is said to have a requirement for 18 additional helicopters: deliveries of two additional Mi-171s are expected by the end of 2005, and two additional helicopters were requested from India as well. Except for one helicopter reported to have been damaged during the fighting in early 2004, in October 2004 also a report surfaced that the co-pilot of a helicopter operated by the Karnali Airways was injured by ground fire while underway between Surkhet and Dolpha.

According to Polish sources (see bellow for details), a number of new, small airfields was developed meanwhile, and in addition to its permanent bases the RNAF is currently operating from airfields at Dolpa (475m long runway, inclined at 7 degrees, and 2.500m above the sea level), Doti (640m above the sea level and with 427m long runway), Kukla (2.590m above the sea level, with 490m long runway), Rumjatar (at 1.370m above the sea, with 500m long runway), and Saley (540m long runway, at no less but 1551m above the sea level).

On the contrary, the whole helicopter force of the 11th Brigade was deployed in support of the next Government offensive, launched in western Nepal, in mid-November 2004, apparently in response to media reports that the rebels were “preparing for their final offensive” and there was a concentration of 1.400 Maoists. Headed by Brig.Gen. Rajendra Thapa, CO Western Division RNA, the operation was undertaken in Kailali, Dedeldhura and Doti districts and was considered a success. However, after a full week of fighting, the Government reported only 22 rebels killed, in exchange for ten dead soldiers. The RNAF helicopters were noted while flying armed patrols, searching the areas where the rebels were holding various posts under siege.

On the other side, the Maoists’ strength was as of 2004 estimated at anywhere between 5.000 and 8.000 well-trained fighters in the Lal Sena (Red Army), with additional 20.000-25.000 of People’s Militia. The Lal Sena was believed to be organised in between six and eight battalions, each with some 400 active fighters: three or four of these were active in the west – foremost in Aacham, Rolpa and Dhor-Patan – and the remaining two or three in the east. Their main weapons are AK-47-, SLR and .303 rifles, but they have also few light machine-guns, recoilless rifles, and mortars – most of which were looted from captured police stations and RNA bases. Nearly 30% of Maoist fighters are females, some are former Indian Army deserters and discharged personnel, but their main strength is drawn from ethnic Magars, Tharus, Janjatis, Gurungs, Rais, Limbus, Tamangs, Dalits, Brahmins and Chhetries – of which the last two provide most of political- and military leadership. Nevertheless, reports surfaced recently about tall “Muslim-looking” people – presumably Kashmiris and Taliban – to have been seen in villages in the west, and among the Maoist dead.

Nepal is usually said to have received only two HAL SA.316B Chetak helicopters - which is an Indian licence-built Aérospatiale (now Eurocopter) SA.316B Alouette III. The actual number of delivered examples should be slightly higher, i.e. between three and four. Only one example was clearly identified so far, serialled RAN-30, as depicted here. The type is operated by the Air Battalion of the 11th Brigade RAN, and mainly used for liaison and reconnaissance. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Recent Developments

During January 2005, military operations of varying intensity have been carried out in at least 30 of the county’s 75 districts, concentrating particularly in the western districts of Baitadi, Achham and Dailekh, as well as in the east, in Sankhuwasabha and Morang. Maoist operations have been registered in at least 14 districts over the same period, with total reported fatalities including 93 rebels, 15 soliders and policemen, and nine civilians. The helicopter activity was reported only two times. In mid-January, helicopters were used to deploy security forces into an operation in Saptari district, that ended with the local rebel leader being gunned down.

On 1 February 2005, King Gyanendra seized power, dismissing the government and parliament, effectively ending the period of 14 years of democracy. Immediately, the Army and Police were sent out to arrest hundreds of students, journalists and human-right activists, while all senior politicians were placed under house arrest. The right to assemble and the use of mobile telephones has been suspended, and the Nepalese media put under tight government control: it is now not even permitted to mention the Maoists. Human rights organisations reported an immense number of extrajudicial killings and thousands of people who went missing ever since. Within days, there was vivid activity of the RNA against rebels as well: due to the snow, the Army units were largely immobilized in their bases, many of which – together with adjacent cities and markets – came under a siege over the winter. The RNAF helicopter gunships therefore strafed and bombed Maoists positions in several districts, foremost in Dailekh.

In mid-April 2005, after the end of winter, the rebels were celebrating the night anniversary of the armed revolution, when RNAF helicopters attacked several of their strongholds, killing and injuring dozens. Apparently in response, the insurgents attacked an Army base in Rolpa district, but their onslaught was stopped and then thrown back, resulting in at least 150 rebels killed. Within a week, on 23 April 2005, the RNA launched an offensive. This began with helicopters deploying troops along advance routes, and then attacking rebel camps with bombs and machine-gun fire as at least four battalions of ground troops began searching villages ruled by the Communists. In the course of just a few days, deaths of 22 rebels and three soldiers were reported in Rolpa alone.

Obviously, the new offensive once again had only limited results, then already in May massive rebel attacks against security force bases in Siraha district were reported. According to RNA, the rebels launched a three-prong attack on two bases and one police post in Bandipur, Chorahawa and Mirchaiya, taking the RNA by surprise. In order to block the arrival of Army reinforcements, the Maoists felled trees, blocking all roads in the area, but the RNAF then deployed helicopters from Kathmandu to counter the attack. Pitched battles continued through the following night and day, with media reporting that up to 30 soliders and policeofficers were missing. The government denied such reports, claiming that 32 Maoists and only four security personnel were killed.

By May, various human-rights organizations claimed that the war in Nepal is the most brutal one in whole Asia, and that the government is now cracking down to gut the country’s civil society. Against the background of multiple RNA offensives, the Rebel leader Prachanda was announcing that his revolution entered the final phase, that his forces have already pushed the RNA into defensive, and confined it to the capital and district headquarters. The few reports that came out of Nepal ever since indicated precarious state of Army’s ammunition stocks – especially for its standard issue INSAS 5.56mm and 7.62mm rifles. An urgent appeal for supply of arms and ammunition was sent to New Delhi – which suspended military aid after the coup by king Gyanendra – and also to Jakarta, in Indonesia. While the later country was slightly faster, India resumed supply of non-lethal military air do Nepal only in early July – at the same time when the RNA announced it is planning to buy not only small arms, ammunition and explosives, but also tanks, aircraft and communication and security equipment.

Sporadic fighting was reported through the rest of spring, with the RNA repeatedly staging operations across wide areas of the country without achieving a breakthrough. By early May some 1.200 RNA troops were concentrated in the Kalikot district to search for insurgents. The Maoists reacted with an attack against the district headquarters, in Pakha village, on 8 August, and the nearby construction site of a key road that should connect Karnali – the most backward region in Nepal – with Kathmandu, held by some 200 Army troops and police officers. According to Maoist reports, 159 troops were killed and 59 captured during this action, in exchange for 26 insurgents; the government first admitted a loss of 40, but subsequently the casualty figures rose well beyond 70 troops missing. Deploying over 1.000 additional troops in the area, the RNA brought Karnali, Parkha and Pili under control, but its defeat was more than obvious: subsequent search for the missing troops produced no other results but a Government report that some 40 soldiers were “lined up and executed” upon their capture by the rebels. Sarcastically, the government media – the same that was publishing calls for help from India only a month earlier – now began criticising INSAS rifles for the defeat at Karnali, RNA spokesman Brig.Gen. Dipak Gurung stating that the Army lost 43 soldiers because their rifles heated after a couple of hours and had to be allowed to cool before they could be fired again. This report came as a surprise to Indian Army, which is quite pleased with the weapon that became a standard issue in the recent year, after passing some of most gruelling trials ever inflicted on a rifle or a machine gun. The problems of the Nepalese Army with its INSAS are most likely caused by poor training, -fire discipline and poor maintenance.

Namely, the standard of training and leadership within the Nepalese military remain appalling: Indian officers training local soldiers have several times expressed disgust at the cowardice shown by local soldiers and poor leadership of their officers – regardless the rank.

In early September, seven major Nepalese political parties joined into an alliance that offered to meet with the rebels and discuss joining forces against King Gyanendra. This was a severe blow to the king, then even the Nepali Congress announced that it would give up its traditional support for a constitutional monarchy. Despite their obvious success on the battlefield, on 3 September 2005, the rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire to last for three months – while simultaneously ruling out peace talks with the monarchist administration: this was an obvious gesture to political parties. The Government dismissed the truce, and on 13 September announced that the RNA was to recruit 7.000 additional soldiers to form new units in the eastern and western regions.

Amid indirect negotiations, the RNA continued small-scale COIN operations. During one of these, a Puma helicopter transporting supplies from Kathmandu to RNA’s Bhawani Prasad Company, crashed at Namche airport, in Solukhumbu district, some 300km east of Kathmandu. There were not fatalities or serious injuries, however, and the damage the helicopter suffered was minimal.

As of October 2005, the Government in Kathmandu is under increasing pressure to reciprote the rebel cease-fire. Nevertheless, small-scale Army operations continue. Although the Government held the initiative, the Battle of Kalikot clearly showed that the war in Nepal is actually in a state of a bloody stalemate. The RNA is still too small and poorly equipped to defeat the Maoists. The situation was not improved through attempts to arm upper-caste villagers and incite them to take action against rebels either.

Some 12.000 people are said to have been killed since the start of rebellion, and over 1.200 are missing.

The RNAF and RAN received at least three SA.330 Pumas. One is operated by the Royal Flight, painted white overall and wears civilian registration "9N-RAJ". Two others are camouflaged in dark olive green and wearing serials RAN-18 and RAN-28. The RAN-18 used to have a parts of nose and boom painted in day-glo orange after delivery, but was seen without these in the late 1990s. Repeated reports about the loss of one of Pumas (one should have been written off in August 1995, another two years ago) were never confirmed so far. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Serials of RNAF and RNA aircraft and helicopters

* Air Battalion, 11th Brigade RNA
- SA.330C/G Puma: RAN-18, RAN-19, RAN-28, RAN-29
- SA.316B Chetak: RAN-17, RAN-29, RAN-30, RAN-31, RN-RAN
- AS.350: RAN-33
- Mi-171MTV-5: RAN-3?
- Mi-17MTV: RAN-36, RAN-37

* RNAF, Royal Flight
- HS.748Srs 275: RAN-20
- AS.332L Super Puma: 9N-RAJ
- AS.332L1 Super Puma:

* RNAF, unknown units
- SC-7 Skyvan: RA-N14, RAN-19,
- BN-2 Islander (white overall, blue cheat line and black nose): serial unknown
- PZL M.28.05: RAN-41, RAN-48

Asian Airlines is known to have operated three Mi-17MTVs in Nepal of the early 1990s, together with at least two MBB Bo.105s and one Bell 206 JetRanger. It is unknown if these helicopters were taken up by the Nepalese military. All three Mi-17s were painted in civilian shemes and wore civilian registrations on boom:
- 9N-ACU, white overall, with dark blue cheat lines
- 9N-AFG, day-glo orange overall, dark blue cheat line along the fuselage
- 9N-A?: white overall, drak blue and red cheat line down the fuselage and boom

Sources & Bibliography

There are no printed sources about this war known to ACIG.org team. Therefore, this feature is almost entirely based on media reports released by BBC, CNN, Globalsecurity.org, Times of India and similar sources. The two exceptions were articles “Rok w Nepalu” (Skyrzdlata Polska, 10/2003), and “Skytrucki na Dachu Swiata” (unknown magazine, 10/2004), both by Grzegorz Holdanowicz.

© Copyright 2002-3 by ACIG.org

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