|The assimilation of the former fighters into society is viewed as a crucial step in Nepal's peace process [AFP]
Nepal's Maoists have relinquished control of at least 19,000 former fighters to government control in a move expected to boost the country's peace process.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the Maoist leader popularly known as Prachanda, and Madhav Kumar Nepal, the country's prime minister, signed a joint declaration on Saturday to place the former fighters under the control of a cross-party committee headed by the prime minister.
The Nepal government now faces the thorny task of integrating the Maoist fighters into the security forces or rehabilitating them into civilian life in the Himalayan republic.
The handover was telecast live at a Maoist camp 80km south of the capital Kathmandu and comes a week after a United Nations peace mission wrapped up its operations in the country.
The UN mission monitored Nepal's edgy transition to peace after the civil war, which raged in desperately poor Nepal from 1996 to 2006 and killed more than 16,000 people.
'Big step forward'
Dignitaries at the handover ceremony said they were optimistic about their future.
Gopal Singh Bohra, a retired brigadier-general and member of the special committee, called the deal "a big step forward".
Robert Piper, a UN humanitarian co-ordinator, said: "Certainly the atmosphere is very exciting and we all hope that today is the beginning of another exciting chapter in Nepal's peace process."
The future of the former fighters is crucial to the stability of a country that acts as a buffer between China and India, who compete for influence in the nation.
Nepal's Maoists, who control 40 per cent of seats in the parliament, briefly headed a coalition after their surprise victory in the 2008 election for a special constituent assembly meant to draw up the country's first republican constitution.
But the alliance fell apart and Prachanda resigned as prime minister in a conflict with the president over control of the national army.
Nepal has been in political turmoil ever since.
The country's parliament has so far failed to elect a new leader since June 2010 when prime minister Nepal quit under pressure from the Maoists. Nepal is still acting as caretaker prime minister.