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Deputy leader of former Maoist rebels sworn in as Nepal prime minister; assembly extends term

KATMANDU, Nepal  — The deputy leader of Nepal's former Maoist rebels took the oath of office as prime minister Monday and began forming a government that will attempt to complete a contentious and long-delayed peace process.

Members of the Constituent Assembly, meanwhile, voted Monday to extend their term by another three months so they can draft the constitution awaited since 2008. The assembly also works as the Parliament though its main task is writing the constitution.

Both steps avert a political crisis for now in the Himalayan nation trying to transform from a centuries-old monarchy to a republic.

Baburam Bhattarai of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) won a majority of parliamentary votes Sunday with the support of an alliance of smaller parties. He named a leader of the alliance, Bijaya Gachchedar, as deputy prime minister and home minister but said he was still negotiating over other Cabinet positions.

Bhattarai, 57, is the second-highest leader of the Maoists, who fought government troops for 10 years until 2006 demanding political reforms and an end to the monarchy. They then joined mainstream politics and won the largest number of seats in 2008 parliamentary elections, becoming the country's largest party.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland congratulated Bhattari on his election and said the U.S. looked forward to "continuing the warm and constructive relationship that we've had with Nepal."

"We're hopeful that his election will give renewed momentum both to the peace process and to constitution drafting," Nuland told reporters.

Bhattarai, who has a doctorate from Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, remained in hiding during the bloody revolt but is believed to be the chief planner of the Maoists' strategy, both during the years of fighting and in peace time.

He was sworn in Monday by President Rambaran Yadav in a ceremony at the president's office.

An alliance of parties representing the Madeshi region in southern Nepal supported him in Sunday's voting and was expected to receive Cabinet positions. Jayaprakash Gupta of the alliance said they had asked for 11 of the 26 ministries.

Bhattarai's major challenge will be to complete the peace process that began with the Maoists giving up their armed revolt. Thousands of former Maoist fighters are confined to camps waiting for their future to be decided. The major political parties disagree on whether they should be integrated into the national army.

The latest term of the Constituent Assembly was due to expire on Aug. 31. The assembly elected in 2008 had two years to finish the job, but it was first extended by one year in 2009 and then again in May for three months. The assembly is nowhere near completing the task mainly due to disagreement among the major political parties on several issues.

Nearly all the 541 members present in the assembly on Monday voted in favor of extending the term.

Bhattarai's predecessor, Jhalnath Khanal, resigned under pressure from the Maoists after failing to make process in drafting the constitution.

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