In a move seen as vital to reintegration, Nepal has followed through on its pledge to incorporate Maoist fighters and weapons into the national army.
When a panel led by Nepal Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai last week announced the handover of Maoist combatants and their arms to the Nepal Army by April 12th, many took it as another promise meant to be broken. So it took many sceptics by surprise when the same panel on Tuesday (April 10th) decided to hand over the 15 Maoist cantonments and an array of arms to the Nepal Army and the Armed Police Force (APF) that once fought the rebels.
The authorities apparently took the decision after security issues arose and the chain of command became dysfunctional in the cantonments.
Observers say the dramatic turn is a major development in the over-five-year-old peace process.
"The cantonments, the combatants and their arms have come under the firm control of the army and the APF from Tuesday night," said retired Lieutenant General Balananda Sharma, who heads a secretariat that oversaw the takeover. "The security situation in the cantonments is now normal."
There are over 9,000 Maoist combatants in 15 cantonments waiting for a decision on their future. Management of these former fighters is at the centre of the home-grown peace process that began in November 2006 after a deal was signed between the government and the Maoist party to end a 10-year insurgency. Over 15,000 people lost their lives in the uprising.
Under the deal, no more than 6,500 combatants are to be integrated into the national army and the rest will be given voluntary retirement with paycheques ranging from $6,357 to $10,235.
The latest development has paved the way for expediting the constitution-writing process, political leaders said.
Nepal's Constituent Assembly is required to draft a new constitution by May 27th but major political parties are yet to resolve major contentious issues like federalism, system of governance and the constitutional court.
"With Tuesday's development, the peace process has reached an irreversible stage," said Ram Sharan Mahat, a senior Nepali Congress leader. "Naturally it has paved the way for expediting the constitution writing process."
Another Congress leader, Ramchandra Poudel, vice chairman of the party, commented that the United Communist Party of Nepal (UCPN-(M)) Maoists, once listed as terrorists, have totally become a civilian party.
Yet the path ahead is not easy. The major parties are still stuck on key issues of Maoist integration into the national army such as ranks to be given to the combatants after integration, structure of the committee that will select them for integration and the structure of a directorate under which the combatants will remain after their integration.
The most serious challenge has come from a faction within the Maoists, led by party senior vice chairman Mohan Baidya. It has protested Tuesday's handover, saying the move is tantamount to surrender.
Nevertheless, the Maoist party and the panel headed by the prime minister is determined to go forward with the integration process and complete it as soon as possible.
"Everything will be settled on Friday," party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal told journalists in Kathmandu.
Common people say the development has instilled optimism in them that the peace process will be concluded and the constitution will be drafted by May 27.
"I cannot believe the army taking charge of the cantonments, Maoist combatants and their arms. This has led me to believe that the parties will conclude the peace process and give us peace and a constitution by May 27th," Rakesh Yadav, a 27-year old student, said.
Khabar correspondent Gopal Subedi contributed to the article.