KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Thousands of vehicles lined up at petrol pumps in Kathmandu on Wednesday to beat a looming ban on fuel sales announced by the government as protests against a new constitution strangled supplies from India into the landlocked nation.
India has been critical of Kathmandu for rushing through the constitution despite opposition from minorities living close to its border. Nepal accuses India of imposing a blockade to show its displeasure, and tensions have risen between the countries.
"Beginning on Thursday, we are further restricting distribution due to the very limited supplies we have. Private vehicles will not be able to purchase petrol or diesel," said Laxmi Prasad Dhakal, a home ministry spokesman.
Emergency services vehicles, the army and police and trucks carrying food supplies would be exempted, and the rationing would be reviewed on Saturday, he said.
"We've been here since last night, we slept in the cars,"
said Govind Sitaula, who had been in line for 24 hours at a Kathmandu petrol pump to refuel his taxi, along with 200 other vehicles. "If I don't get to the pump by tonight this will all have been a waste."
India denies a blockade but says its trucks cannot enter the southern Tarai region because of the widespread protests by groups upset that the constitution will divide their provinces.
At least 40 people have been killed during protests in the plains in recent weeks.
As relations with India have soured there has been increased speculation in Kathmandu over whether fuel could be imported to Nepal from its other large neighbor China, India’s rival in the Himalayas.
Nepali officials were quick to play these reports down. China's long border with Nepal straddles some of the world's highest and most remote mountain terrain, and the main supply routes are currently closed because of avalanches linked to this year's earthquakes.
"There is no alternative to the road to India,” Prakash Adhikari, press advisor to Prime Minister Sushil Koirala told Reuters. “Getting petrol and petroleum products from mainland China is difficult due to the terrain.”
Chinese airline China Southern suspended flights to Kathmandu for Tuesday until October 10 after officials in Nepal said they could no longer provide refueling for international flights. Other airlines have not yet followed suit.
On Wednesday, a small group of protesters led by a Maoist faction chanted anti-India slogans in front of riot police who blocked their way to the Indian embassy.
Protesters continued to block entry points in the south, said officials in the town of Biratnagar, although around 90 trucks entered Nepal at the Sunauli-Bhairahawa border after Indian police chased protesters away, Rupandehi Chief District Officer Bishnu Prasad Dhakal told Reuters.
"But among these, only three were carrying petrol and two gas," he said. "The rest were vegetables and other goods."
Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel