"The death toll is at least 25 people so far," Kuber Kadayat, a police official, said.

Violence has been increasing in southern Nepal where the Madeshi People's Rights Forum has imposed strikes and transport shutdowns and held demonstrations since January to demand greater rights for the people of the region.

 

Rising discontent

 

The group, along with several smaller minority-rights organisations, is demanding greater autonomy, more seats in the national legislature and a guaranteed number of representatives from southern Nepal in the administration.

 

They allege that the southern region has been sidelined in favour of the more populated mountainous areas in the north.

 

Former Maoist rebels have also been accused by several sections including the Madeshis of running extortion rackets. A spate of abductions has been blamed on the former rebels, prompting businessmen in Kathmandu to agitate against "Maoist-excesses" in recent days.

 

The rising discontent against the Maoists comes at a time when the former rebels are set to join an interim government after signing a peace deal last year. Elections are to be held this year.