KATMANDU, Nepal — The army took complete control of this embattled capital and several major suburbs Saturday to enforce an unprecedented 24-hour curfew and stall a popular uprising for democracy that is threatening Asia's oldest monarchy.
Dozens of Chinese-made armored personnel carriers, bristling with weapons, patrolled Katmandu's deserted streets throughout the day. Crack combat troops manned machine-gun positions around King Birendra's palace, near the scene of Friday's bloody urban violence, the worst in Katmandu's modern history.
Troops manned checkpoints, blockaded most major intersections and guarded government installations, forming a ring around the city 12 miles in diameter. Army helicopters flew over the nation's main university campus, where the pro-democracy movement began nearly eight weeks ago.
It was the capital's first curfew in at least three decades, and most of Katmandu's largely illiterate population did not even understand it, despite hourly broadcasts on state-run radio that anyone violating it would be shot on sight.
Three "curfew violators" were shot dead by soldiers in the suburb of Patan on Saturday. Several reliable sources said that one of the victims was an elderly woman who was going to a local well for water. Another was a woman shot on her balcony after witnessing the first killing, they said.
Elsewhere in the country, where the curfew was not in effect, protest marches and demonstrations continued Saturday, as did retaliatory firing by riot troops, according to diplomats and other sources. No casualty figures were available.
In the capital, however, the human toll was rising from Friday's police assault on pro-democracy demonstrators. At Bir Hospital, where nine of the scores of people reported killed by gunfire had died, doctors were running short of food for their patients. Among those at the hospital were 102 people seriously wounded in the carnage near the king's palace.
Doctors also complained that the army was keeping ambulances from entering and leaving the compound and barring relief employees for the exhausted staff from reaching hospital grounds.
Katmandu's international airport was effectively closed all day, and thousands of foreigners in this popular tourist mecca were stranded and confined to their hotels. The army refused to issue curfew passes or let civilian vehicles move between the city and airport. No flights had landed or left the Himalayan kingdom for more than 36 hours as of 7 a.m. today.
Saturday's overpowering military presence led to rumors that the army may even have taken power from the king, Nepal's supreme military commander, who was not seen or heard on government broadcast media all day.
"Whether it's a coup or not, it's my sense that the army has fully taken over now," one longtime foreign resident of Nepal said. "The question now is, will they help or will they create a civil war situation."
A senior diplomat here rejected such speculation. "It's not a question at all of the army having taken over in a military coup. The army is very loyal," the diplomat said of the 40,000-strong force that has supported and defended Nepal's 250-year-old monarchy. "What they are providing is a shield . . . for the political process."
There were several attempts at direct negotiations between pro-democracy leaders and three of the four Cabinet ministers whom the king has appointed to replace a hard-line government he dismissed Friday morning in an attempt to defuse the growing crisis.
Birendra's new prime minister, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, met with Ganesh Man Singh, the ailing leader of the banned Nepali Congress Party, in Singh's hospital room Saturday. But Congress leaders said that Chand described it as "a courtesy call," adding that Singh repeated his determination to keep the protests going.
"The popular movement will continue with greater vigor, intensity and dimension," Singh vowed in a public statement. Congress Party leaders, as well as representatives of seven Communist parties that are helping to lead the mass uprising, have insisted they will not even discuss ending the protests until the king publicly agrees to a multi-party system in Nepal.
Nepal's kings have ruled with virtually unchecked power since Birendra's father, King Mahendra, used the army to stage a palace coup in 1960, jailing all of the elected officials and Cabinet ministers. When the pro-democracy movement began in February this year, it was largely confined to students, radical Communists and the same Congress Party leaders Mahendra had arrested 30 years ago, among them Singh. But the leaders repeatedly said they were seeking a constitutional monarchy that would merely dilute the king's power.