India's sandalwood raises stink in Nepal
Apr 19, 2007 - 1:50:56 PM

Kathmandu, April 19 - Red sandalwood, a precious fragrant tree whose indiscriminate felling is a punishable offence in India, has raised a stink in Nepal, with the exposure of a thriving cross-border smuggling network that has ministers at loggerheads.

On Wednesday, police in Nepal seized nearly seven tonnes of red sandalwood near the border with Tibet.

Hidden under mounds of beaten rice, the precious cargo was being spirited away from India to China via Nepal by smugglers, with the likely involvement of customs and security officials in all three countries.

The cross-border smuggling was given an unexpected twist when it set Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala at loggerheads with newly appointed Forest And Soil Conservation Minister Matrika Prasad Yadav, stalling a cabinet meeting Wednesday.

Yadav, who belongs to the Maoist party and was tortured during a government run by Koirala's Nepali Congress party, has publicly accused the Nepal Army of being involved in poaching and felling trees.

The accusation angered Koirala, who also holds the defence portfolio.

On Wednesday, when the eight-party alliance ministers met, Koirala flew at Yadav's throat, accusing him of interfering in other ministers' work, triggering a walkout by the Maoist ministers.

The seizure comes less than a week after a revenue patrol along the same route unearthed 11 tonnes of red sandalwood being smuggled to China from India through Nepal.

The flourishing racket has been flayed by Nepal's MPs, who have raised the issue in parliament and demanded an investigation.

Even the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority, a state probe agency mandated to look into misdeeds by ministers and bureaucrats, has asked the forest and soil conservation as well as home ministries to probe the incidents.

There has been a growing rift between Koirala and the rebels after Nepal's Election Commission this month dropped a bombshell, saying it was impossible to hold elections on June 20 -- as announced by the government.

The Maoists are blaming Koirala and the other six parties in the alliance for the postponement. They have vowed to revolt if the government doesn't declare Nepal a republic or agree to hold a referendum to decide the fate of Nepal's 238-year monarchy.

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