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Thursday, 7 June, 2001, 13:09 GMT 14:09 UK
Nepal's night of bloodshed
Men carry photos of the dead Nepali king and queen through Kathmandu
The royal deaths leave Nepal in a dangerous vacuum
Daniel Lak in Kathmandu recounts the fateful night when he learned of the horrific massacre of most of Nepal's royal family

An unexpected phone call after midnight sends a chill of dread down the spine.

The automatic assumption, even as you rouse yourself from a deep sleep, is of the death of a loved one somewhere.

That's what I felt when I stumbled to the telephone in the wee hours of the morning on Saturday 2 June.

It can't be true, I remember saying, but I hung up and started calling friends and contacts in the hope that this was just a cruel rumour

It was a trusted BBC colleague with a wildly improbable tale. One that nonetheless jolted me into a state of rude wakefulness.

A family friend in London had just told a dreadful story of the crown prince of Nepal running amok with an assault rifle and killing his father, the king, his mother and many other close family members.

The source was a Nepalese royal, a young woman living in London who herself had received a dreadful phone call from Kathmandu.

'It can't be true'

It can't be true, I remember saying, but I hung up and started calling friends and contacts in the hope that this was just a cruel rumour, an evil and mischievous attempt to wind up journalists and the gossipy elite in my adopted city.

But at two o'clock in the morning, I encountered nothing but engaged signals on mobile phones and land lines.

The city was wide awake and it was frantically networking. Anyone in any way remotely connected with the events inside the palace walls was speaking, but not allowing their names to be used.

A woman mourner
Nepalis are still trying to come to terms with what happened
One thing was clear. They wanted the story told.

What emerged was the horrendous story of a son, crazed with anger that his parents would not let him marry the woman he loved, going on a shooting rampage and killing almost all of the royal family.

Gruesome details, and I won't repeat them here, were offered about the wounds people suffered.

The sources were impeccable, if anonymous, and the story was out on international news agencies and broadcast outlets within a few hours.

Mystical institution

It's the way things work. Journalists from liberal democracies operate in a climate where only libel laws and the requirements of truth dictate what they report.

But Nepal is different.

Democracy is young and the monarchy is a mystical and revered institution here. A much respected king was dead, his son was wounded and in a coma, and accused of his death.

Captain Rajiv Shahi
An eyewitness gives his account of the shootings
Despite that, he was named monarch. Thirty hours after the killings, the authorities lamely tried to explain them away as an accident, or more accurately, the sudden discharge of an automatic weapon.

No one was buying that, least of all the angry young men who poured into the streets after the coronation of King Gyanendra on Monday - an event that should have been the beginnings of a return to normality; grief-stricken perhaps, but peaceful.

But no, the mob wanted violence - perhaps as catharsis, perhaps to push an anti-monarchy, anti-government agenda.

The riots weren't huge, but they caused chaos on top of grief and the authorities imposed a curfew.

Conspiracy theories

The conspiracy theories were by now churning furiously.

Mostly they centred around the role of the son of the new king, a man whom Nepalis already thought of as the black sheep of the monarchy.

Prince Paras Shah was widely reported last September to have been involved in a hit and run accident that left a popular musician dead.

He was said to be fond of fire arms - in short, he was a ready-made villain and the shootings in the royal palace had catapulted him to the top of the succession list for the throne.

No matter that the same inside sources who had blamed the late prince Dipendra denied all of this. It suited the mood on the streets.

The country's militant Maoist movement chimed in, blaming India for the killings as they have blamed the Indians for much else that is wrong with Nepal in recent years.

Nepali soldiers
Nepal's army is battling a Maoist insurgency
Sensing a chance to gain some political popularity perhaps, two senior Maoist leaders wrote in leading newspapers that the elected government was conspiring with India to undermine Nepali sovereignty.

It's an alarming thought, even for non-Maoist Nepalis who are ever suspicious that India somehow has designs on Nepalese territory.

India hasn't helped matters in the past by taking an almost bullying attitude towards its smaller neighbour.

Catch 22

The new king has tried to move quickly to neutralise rumour, conspiracy theories and exploitation of events by the Maoists and others.

But his commission of inquiry into the palace killings has already lost a crucial member.

And it is caught in a bind. Telling bitter, unpalatable truths could just inflame public opinion more.

But providing yet more unsatisfactory and vague answers will be equally dangerous.

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See also:

06 Jun 01 | South Asia
Nepal journalists charged with treason
04 Jun 01 | South Asia
Anger in Kathmandu
04 Jun 01 | Media reports
King Gyanendra's address: Full text
07 Jun 01 | South Asia
Nepal survivors blame prince
02 Jun 01 | South Asia
Nepal royal assassin named king
02 Jun 01 | South Asia
Nepal mourns slain king
05 Jun 01 | South Asia
Aishwarya: Nepal's forceful queen
05 Jun 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Nepal's uncertain future
06 Jun 01 | South Asia
'Eyewitness' account blames Dipendra
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