Kathmandu: A UN mission set up four years ago to oversee Nepal`s post-war transition will close on Saturday, removing a crucial buffer between two armed factions deadlocked in a fragile peace process.
The UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) was established in 2007 with a one-year mandate to supervise peace after a decade-long conflict between Maoist insurgents and state forces in which at least 16,000 people died.
But delays in implementing key elements of a 2006 peace agreement, including the integration of 19,000 former Maoist soldiers into the state security forces, meant its mandate had to be repeatedly extended.
Last September, the UN Security Council voted to close UNMIN after a final four-month extension, citing a lack of progress and saying the mission had been unfairly drawn into political battles between the parties.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said last month the peace process was "at a crossroads”, but that it made little sense to keep UNMIN open "without any meaningful progress by the parties on political issues”.
The United Nations has promised to remain involved in Nepal`s peace process even after UNMIN`s departure, but it leaves the country in a state of flux, with no government in place and growing divisions between the parties.
Sixteen rounds of voting in Parliament have failed to produce a new leader since Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal stood down last June, and the lack of leadership is hampering development in one of the world`s poorest countries.
The process of drafting a new national Constitution aimed at ending the historic social inequalities that were a major cause of the war -- another key tenet of the peace deal -- has stalled.
Sarah Levit-Shore, head of the Nepal office of the US-based Carter Centre, which deploys monitors across the country, said citizens were frustrated and concerned.
"I think this is a fragile time for Nepal," she said. "It is critical for Nepal`s political leaders to come together, refresh existing agreements and make new and very important agreements in advance of what is a very short constitutional deadline."
Analysts say the continued existence of the Maoist People`s Liberation Army, whose soldiers were confined to camps around the country after the war, has added to a growing sense of public unease in the country.
The arrangement was intended as a temporary solution pending a merger of the PLA and the national Army, but has dragged on because the Maoists and their political rivals have been unable to reach agreement on the issue.
A team of UN arms monitors conducts round-the-clock supervision of the PLA camps, where the Maoists` weapons are stored in sealed containers, and of a Nepal Army barracks on the outskirts of Kathmandu.
The monitors are scheduled to leave at midnight (1815 GMT) on Saturday and a new team to be appointed by a cross-party committee of lawmakers will replace them.
Nepalese political commentator Prashant Jha argues that UNMIN has played a vital role in the peace process by acting as a symbolic deterrent against the resumption of violence.
"The impact (of UNMIN`s departure) goes well beyond the technical aspects," he wrote in a column for an Indian newspaper on Friday.
"UNMIN leaves at a time when the most complex task of this process -- integration and rehabilitation of the former combatants -- has not even started.”
"Peace has held in Nepal because Nepali actors, including the Nepal Army and the Maoists, have behaved with restraint and responsibility, but UNMIN`s exit will make this task more difficult."