KATHMANDU (Reuters) – Police in Nepal used tear gas and water cannon on Thursday to break up a religious rally that defied a government ban on public gatherings imposed to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the ban, about 2,000 residents poured into a major thoroughfare of Lalitpur, near Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, to pull a chariot of the rain god, Rato Machhindranath, a ritual that has been celebrated for countless generations.
Authorities imposed temporary curbs in Kathmandu and surrounding areas in August to help contain coronavirus contagion and asked residents to observe festivals at home.
“We charged (with) water cannon and tear gas to stop the rally,” police official Tek Prasad Rai told Reuters.
On Thursday, Nepali Health Ministry spokesman Jageshwor Gautam said the number of coronavirus infections in the Himalayan nation had increased to 42,877, with 257 deaths.
Temple-studded Kathmandu Valley recorded 445 new cases, a jump of about 7% from the previous day.
Witnesses said the protesters, wearing protective face masks against the virus, threw rocks at baton-wielding police and set a police motorcycle on fire. An injured person was carried away by police, they said.
Narayan Prasad Bhatta, the top civil servant of Lalitpur district, said the rally like all other religious and social gatherings had been banned to stem the spread of the pandemic.
But participants said they must be allowed to carry on with the rain god tradition that had been celebrated for centuries.
Some participants carried placards reading: “We oppose efforts by the administration to interfere in our culture and festivals.”
(This story corrects spelling of “against” in para 7.)
(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Mayank Bhardwaj and Mark Heinrich)