A Nepali spiritual leader believed by his followers to be a reincarnation of Buddha is under investigation over the disappearance of several devotees, police in Kathmandu said Monday.
Ram Bahadur Bomjan, dubbed “Buddha Boy”, became famous in 2005 after followers said he could meditate motionless for months without water, food or sleep in Nepal’s jungles.
The 28-year-old guru has a devout following but has been accused of physically and sexually assaulting some of his flock.
Special police investigators have begun inquiries after the families of four of Bomjan’s devotees allegedly vanished from his ashrams.
“The police have started investigating these complaints against Bomjan,” Uma Prasad Chaturbedi, a spokesman for Nepal’s Central Investigation Bureau, told AFP.
“The investigation is in preliminary stage and we cannot share many details.”
Bomjan has long been dogged by accusations of abuse in deeply spiritual Nepal, even as thousands of worshippers queued for days to witness his so-called miracles of meditation deep in the jungle.
In September last year, an 18-year-old nun accused the guru of raping her at one of his ashrams.
Dozens more have filed complaints against him alleging assault. The self-styled godman said he beat them for disturbing his meditation.
The Bodhi Shrawan Dharma Sangha, an organisation associated with the guru, recently slammed as baseless a series of fresh allegations made by a local website, Setopati.com, which published reports detailing cases of disappearances, sexual assault and violence in his ashrams.
All nine members of a South Korean climbing expedition were confirmed dead Saturday after a violent snowstorm devastated their camp on Nepal’s Mount Gurja, one of the deadliest mountaineering accidents to hit the Himalayan nation in recent years.
The bodies of eight climbers — four South Koreans and four Nepali guides — were spotted among the wreckage of their camp by a rescue team early Saturday morning, but strong winds and icy conditions were hampering the search effort.
A fifth South Korean climber was initially reported missing, but officials have now confirmed that he was at the camp when the deadly storm hit and is believed to have also perished.
“A mountain expedition of five South Korean nationals and four foreigners were swept off by strong winds at the base camp during their climb to Mount Gurja. (They) fell off a cliff and died,” the South Korean foreign ministry said in a statement.
Helicopter pilot Siddartha Gurung was among the first people to reach the site after the deadly storm and described a scene of total destruction with the tents flattened and the climber’s bodies scattered across the area.
“Everything is gone, all the tents are blown apart,” Gurung told AFP.
Gurung landed a helicopter just above the expedition team’s camp, but icy and unstable conditions meant they were unable to retrieve any of the bodies.
Nepal’s tourism department said a second helicopter was being sent to the site Saturday afternoon.
“A helicopter has been sent for second rescue attempt but we are not sure whether it can get close to the incident site,” said spokeswoman Mira Acharya.
– Deadliest incident – The storm is the deadliest incident to hit Nepal’s mountaineering industry since 18 people were killed at the Mount Everest base camp in 2015 in an avalanche triggered by a powerful earthquake.
The previous year, 16 Sherpas were killed on Everest when an avalanche swept through the Khumbu Icefall.
Wangchu Sherpa, managing director of Trekking Camp Nepal, who organised the expedition, said they raised the alarm after they had not heard from the South Korean team for nearly 24 hours.
“After they (the climbers) were out of contact since yesterday we sent people from the village and a helicopter to search for them,” he said.
The group of South Korean climbers and their Nepali guides had been camped at the foot of the 7,193-metre (23,599-foot) Mount Gurja since early October, waiting for a window of good weather so they could attempt to reach the summit.
Feted South Korean climber Kim Chang-ho, who in 2013 became the fastest person to summit the world’s 14 highest mountains without using supplemental oxygen, was leading the expedition, according to a government-issued climbing permit seen by AFP.
The permit listed four South Korean climbers, but a fifth member had joined the team later, according to Suresh Dakal of Trekking Camp Nepal.
Rarely-climbed Gurja lies in Nepal’s Annapurna region, next to avalanche-prone Dhaulagiri — the world’s seventh-highest mountain.
Gurja was first summited in 1969 by a Japanese team but no one has stood on its summit for 22 years, according to the Himalayan Database.
The South Korean team were planning to scale the mountain via a never-climbed route, according to the Korean Alpine Federation.
Four climbers have perished on Gurja’s flanks and a total of 30 have successfully reached its peak — a fraction of the more than 8,000 people who have summited Everest, the world’s highest mountain.
Thousands of climbers flock to Nepal each year — home to eight of the world’s 14 highest peaks — creating a lucrative mountain tourism industry that is a vital source of cash for the impoverished country.
Dozens of protesters in Nepal have been injured in clashes with police at a demonstration in support of a hunger-striking doctor seeking better health care in the impoverished Himalayan country.
Thousands took to the streets on Saturday in solidarity with Dr Govinda KC, who has been on a hunger strike for nearly a month demanding reforms in the medical sector and education.
Protestors from Nepal Tarun Dal, the youth wing of the opposition party Nepali Congress, were injured when police fired multiple rounds of tear gas and used batons as they entered a restricted area near the parliament in capital Kathmandu.
Activists on Sunday said they planned more protests following the clashes.
“We are protesting against the government’s authoritarian-like behaviour. They are not listening to the people and to the just demands of Dr Govinda KC,” Bhupendra Jung Shahi, general secretary of Nepal Tarun Dal, told AFP.
Viewed by his supporters as a medical Robin Hood, Dr KC is well known in Nepal for his philanthropic work, travelling to some of the country’s most remote communities to provide medical care and train local health workers.
Dr KC, 61, has gone on hunger strike 15 times over the past six years in an attempt to pressure the government to improve healthcare.
He began his current hunger strike, the longest at 23 days, on June 30 in remote Jumla district and was airlifted to Kathmandu by the government amid protests last week as concerns for his health grew.
A key sticking point has been a medical education bill registered in the parliament earlier this month seeking to overturn an ordinance by the previous government that met Dr KC’s demands to regulate doctor training and curtail commercialisation in medical education.
Dr KC has demanded a withdrawal of the bill before sitting down for talks with the government.
Another hundred supporters also joined Dr KC in a hunger strike on Sunday to pressure the government to respond positively.
“Until the government responds to his demands we will continue to protest peacefully and draw the attention of the government,” said Dinesh Prasai, a professor who had joined the fast.
Forty-nine people were killed when a Bangladeshi plane crashed and burst into flames near Kathmandu airport on Monday, in the worst aviation disaster to hit Nepal in nearly three decades.
Officials said there were 71 people on board the US-Bangla Airlines plane from Dhaka when it crashed just east of the runway and skidded into a nearby football field.
Rescuers had to cut apart the mangled and burned wreckage of the upturned aircraft to pull people out, some of whom were buried under the scattered debris.
“Forty people died at the spot and nine died at two hospitals in Kathmandu,” police spokesman Manoj Neupane told AFP, adding another 22 were being treated in hospital, some in a critical condition.
The cause of the crash was not immediately clear, but a statement from airport authorities said the plane was “out of control” as it came in to land.
An airport source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there may have been confusion between air traffic control and the pilot over which runway the plane was meant to land on.
Eyewitnesses said the plane crashed as it made a second approach towards the airport, bursting into flames after coming to a halt in a football pitch next to the runway.
“It should have come straight but it went in the other direction,” said airport cleaner Sushil Chaudhary, who saw the crash.
“I was worried it would hit another aircraft, but the pilot pulled the plane up. But then it crashed towards the field.”
Nepal Army spokesman Gokul Bhandaree said seven of the victims survived the impact but later died of their injuries.
Airline spokesman Kamrul Islam told AFP 33 of the passengers were Nepali, 32 were Bangladeshi, one was Chinese and one from the Maldives. Local media reported that many of the Nepali passengers were college students returning home for a holiday.
The plane was a Canadian-made Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 turboprop, Mahbubur Rahman of Bangladesh’s civil aviation ministry told AFP. Other sources said the aircraft was 17 years old.
“There might be technical problems on the aircraft. But it has to be probed before making a final statement,” Rahman told AFP.
Kathmandu airport briefly closed after the accident, forcing inbound flights to divert, but it has since reopened.
It is Nepal’s only international airport and experts say the surrounding Himalayan landscape makes it testing for pilots coming into land.
“The landing at Kathmandu because of the terrain is a little challenging,” said Gabriele Ascenzo, a Canadian pilot who runs aviation safety courses in Nepal.
Depending on the direction of approach, pilots have to fly over high terrain before making a steep descent towards the airport, Ascenzo added.
The accident is the deadliest since September 1992, when all 167 people aboard a Pakistan International Airlines plane were killed when it crashed as it approached Kathmandu airport.
Just two months earlier, a Thai Airways aircraft had crashed near the same airport, killing 113 people.
Nepal’s poor air safety record is largely blamed on inadequate maintenance, inexperienced pilots and substandard management, and its planes are banned from flying in European airspace.
Accidents are common, hitting the impoverished country’s vital tourism industry. In early 2016, a Twin Otter turboprop aircraft slammed into a mountainside in Nepal killing all 23 people on board. Two days later, two pilots were killed when a small passenger plane crash-landed in the country’s hilly midwest.
US-Bangla Airlines is a private carrier that launched in July 2014 with the motto “Fly Fast Fly Safe”, according to its website.
The Dhaka-based airline made its first international flight in May 2016 to Kathmandu and has since expanded with routes to South Asia, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
In 2015 one of its planes overshot the runway on landing at Saidpur in northwest Bangladesh. There were no reports of injuries.
More than two years after an earthquake flattened the Nepali village of Richet, most residents are still living in makeshift shelters. Only the church has been rebuilt — paid for by Christian missionaries whose influence in the mainly Hindu country is growing.
Despite strict laws that ban religious conversion, Christianity has spread rapidly over the last two decades in Nepal, where many see it as an escape from the deeply entrenched caste system.
The Himalayan nation was ruled by a Hindu monarchy for over two centuries until the overthrow of the monarchy in 2008 and also has a strong Buddhist tradition, particularly in the mountainous north.
But the remote Lapa Valley where Richet is located is now predominantly Christian.
Many residents are recent converts to the faith, among them Rika Tamang, who became a Christian after his mother fell ill and the family struggled to pay for the animal sacrifices a local shaman encouraged them to make.
“Whatever I had, I had to offer as a sacrifice to god,” said Tamang, now the pastor of his village in the Lapa Valley.
“Once I converted to Christianity I didn’t have to make sacrifices. I was relieved of that burden.”
According to the 2011 government census, Christians make up less than 1.5 percent of Nepal’s population of 29 million.
But Christian groups estimate the number at more than 3 million. Locals said the census tended to classify people by the faith associated with their family name, meaning many converts were excluded.
Richet is in the northern district of Dhading, one of the first areas where Christianity took hold. It has since spread throughout the country through an active network of evangelical churches.
But some say well-funded foreign missionaries are using aid to convert people in the impoverished country.
– Community tensions – In Richet the dust had only just begun to settle from the powerful earthquake in April 2015 when a group of South Korean and Singaporean missionaries turned up.
They surveyed the damage and left. A few months later bags of cement arrived to rebuild the village’s church.
It was the same story in the nearby village of Kachet, where a new church paid for by South Korean missionaries was nearing completion when AFP visited recently.
“We are happy that we don’t need to be under the sky when we go to church for prayers,” said Richet resident Aman Tamang.
“But we would be happier if we had got grants for rebuilding our homes as well.”
Prashant Tamang, a community leader in the nearby village of Borang that has clung to its Buddhist heritage, said the selective distribution of aid had created tensions between communities.
“Dispute arises sometimes when Christians pressure poor people to adopt their religion by helping them in the time of need,” he told AFP.
– Jail for proselytising – Proselytising has long been illegal in Nepal.
But a new criminal code that will come into force in August 2018 increases the potential jail sentence from three to five years and states that foreigners sentenced of the crime will be deported after serving their time.
Activists say it seeks to curb the rapidly growing Christian community, and have drawn parallels with Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws, which are often used to stir mob violence against minority groups.
“We have seen how that has played out in Pakistan. If you have inadequate safeguards then the laws in Nepal can be misused as well,” said Steven Selvaraj, South Asia expert with the UK-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide advocacy group.
Nepal’s growing network of evangelical churches continues to draw people, and many are concerned that the new law could be used against them.
“The church in Nepal is taught in a way that all believers are taking the commandment of Jesus Christ to go out and tell others about Jesus,” said Tanka Subedi, a Kathmandu pastor.
“So there is quite a big risk that they may be arrested and given trouble, put in jail and also fined.”
The United Nations (UN) says at least eight million people have been affected by the devastating earthquake in Nepal, more than a quarter of the country’s population.
Although international aid has started arriving, the UN said “there is still a huge need”, as about 1.4 million require food aid.
Residents used their bare hands to dig for signs of their loved ones as disbursement is slow.
The 7.8-magnitude quake hit Nepal on Saturday destroying buildings in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital and severely affecting rural areas across the region.
Similarly, Nepal’s Prime Minister, Sushil Koirala, said on Tuesday that the death toll from the massive earthquake could reach 10,000, noting that information from remote villages affected by the quake is yet to come in.
According to Reuters, the Interior Ministry said the confirmed death toll is currently at 4,349, and 7,000 injured while BBC said that the death toll had risen to 4,310, with almost 8,000 injured.
However, Nepal and surrounding areas have continued to anticipate aftershocks, as thousands in Kathmandu have spent a third night outside, scared to go back into their houses. They said they were not sure there would be safe inside.
Over 5,000 people are now confirmed to have died in a massive earthquake that struck Nepal on Saturday, officials say.
More than 6,500 people have also been reported injured, according to the National Emergency Operation Centre (NEOC).
Dozens of people are also reported to have been killed in neighboring China and India.
There were reports of devastation in outlying, isolated mountainous areas after the midday quake of magnitude 7.9, Nepal’s worst in 81 years, centered 50 miles (80 km) east of the second city, Pokhara.
Vast tent cities have sprung up in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, for those displaced or afraid to return to their homes as strong aftershocks continue.
Officials have warned that the number of casualties could rise as rescue teams reach remote mountainous areas of western Nepal.