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Background: Tragedy in Nepal

June 4, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: The royal massacre in the South Asian kingdom of Nepal: It happened Friday, but exactly how is still not clear. Our coverage begins with three reports by Julian Manyon of Independent Television News, filing from Katmandu as the story unfolded.

JULIAN MANYON: Thousands of mourners jammed the streets of Katmandu this evening as the victims of the palace massacre were carried through the city to be cremated. Following Hindu belief, the authorities ordered that the funerals take place immediately. Lines of Gurkha soldiers and marching bands escorted the bodies of the king and his queen, who officials say were killed by their own son in a fit of violent rage. Some of the onlookers were convulsed by grief; others seemed angry at what they see as an unexplained murder plot.

But according to officials, what happened inside the palace was simply the result of an extraordinary family row. The heir to the throne, Crown Prince Dipendra, who was educated at Eaton, is said to have become enraged by his mother’s opposition to his choice of future bride. He produced a gun and opened fire, killing his father, the king, the queen, and six other members of the royal family who were gathered at the dinner table, before turning the weapon on himself.

The crown prince is still alive on a life-support machine. Another surviving prince has been appointed regent. Today thousands came to pay their respects at the cremation site and long lines of people waited outside the palace to sign books of condolence.

But as they did so, confusion mounted over how virtually an entire royal family met its violent end. Crown Prince Dipendra, who showed an interest in firearms during a visit to Pakistan, is accused of shooting his relatives and then himself while in a rage. The crown prince is now critically ill on a life support machine, but has officially inherited the throne.

This morning, the new regent, Prince Gyanendra, declared that the crown prince was not in fact responsible for the deaths, which had happened by accident. A spokesman attempted to explain.

SPOKESMAN: It was an accidental burst of fire from an automatic weapon.

REPORTER: But it was at the dinner table, I believe. How could this have happened?

SPOKESMAN: Well, it happened — these accidents happen, you see.

JULIAN MANYON: Rioting broke out within an hour of the enthronement, and police responded with tear gas and shotgun rounds. Gangs of youths, many of whom shaven headed as a sign of mourning clashed with the police in several parts of Katmandu. The protesters believe that the crown prince, who died in hospital this morning, was innocent of the royal killings, and they see the enthronement of the region, Prince Gyanendra, as a parody of justice. Since early morning the protesters have been accusing Gyanendra, who was the only important royal not in the palace during the massacre, of murder. But that did not halt preparations for his enthronement.

Thousands of soldiers were deployed, and Gyanendra, himself, swept past them on his way to be confirmed as King. The feathered crown of Nepal was placed upon his head, and then the new monarch boarded a horse-drawn coach for what in happier times would have been a triumphal ride through his capital. He remained composed and dignified as the royal procession moved on under heavy guard. But he must have seen that his new subjects stayed largely silent, and there was no sign of jubilation as he passed.