As on the first day of the three-day strike, almost all shops, schools, businesses and factories remained closed on Wednesday while streets were empty of all vehicles except ambulances, state cars and police vans.

  

Drivers of the few private vehicles which ventured out covered up their registration plates, apparently for fear of being singled out and attacked by rebel sympathisers.

  

Government employees could be seen walking or cycling to their offices due to the absence of public transport.

  

The rebels, whose bloody struggle since 1996 for a communist republic has cost at least 9500 lives, called the strike to protest against the killings, arrests and disappearances of their leaders and activists, allegedly at the hands of the state.

 

Protest plans

  

Meanwhile, anti-monarchy demonstrators were planning to continue their protests into a seventh straight day on Wednesday, organisers said.

  

Protests were planned for Kathmandu, where tens of thousands of activists have been turning up daily since last Friday to demonstrate near the royal palace; in Bhaktapur, the medieval town on the outskirts of Kathmandu; and in the western city of Pokhara.

  

An alliance of five political parties is driving the protests to pressure King Gyanendra to reverse his 2002 dismissal of the elected government.

  

The king has largely ignored the alliance, saying his priorities are to crush the Maoists and root out corruption left over from the parties' rule.

  

He has promised elections by April 2005, but the parties demand they should be held under a "neutral" government.