The deaths brought to six the number of people killed on Wednesday, among them a protester shot by soldiers for reportedly trying to interfere with the municipal elections, the country's first vote in seven years.

The Defence Ministry said two rebels were killed when Maoist insurgents launched a major assault hours before polls opened on the eastern town of Dhankuta, where the guerrillas bombed at least 12 government buildings and destroyed the local bank.

The insurgents also killed one policeman and one civilian, and took seven government officials and three policemen hostage during the assault, a police official said, asking not to be identified because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Another rebel was killed in a clash with soldiers in the western town of Dhangadi, the ministry said in a statement, without providing any details.

The vote, seen as a test of King Gyanendra a year after he seized power, was marred by low turnout, largely due to rebel threats against anyone who took part in the vote. At least two candidates were slain in the run-up to the elections.

King Gyanendra dismissed the
government last year

Shooting orders

Authorities had threatened on the eve of the vote to shoot anyone caught trying to disrupt the elections, which the opposition boycotted, calling them a sham intended to legitimize King Gyanendra's rule.

Wednesday's municipal elections are for about 600 seats. In more than 2200 seats voting has been delayed or cancelled because no one dared to stand.

Voting started at 8am local time at centres guarded by soldiers. But voting was slow. At one of the biggest polling centres, Basantapur in Kathmandu, only one voter had cast his ballot within the first half hour.

National elections scheduled for late 2002 were delayed because of the Maoist revolt, triggering a political crisis and a string of unstable governments appointed by the king.