The heir to Nepal's ancient throne killed the country's king and queen and several other members of the royal family Friday, then killed himself, according to a top government official.
The palace massacre in Katmandu, Nepal's capital, horrified the Himalayan nation of about 22 million people, whose government is struggling to put down a spreading insurgency by Maoist rebels who control large tracts of remote mountains and valleys.
As dawn broke and news of the killings spread, stunned Nepalese streamed past police roadblocks toward the palace. But Katmandu remained calm this morning.
Crown Prince Dipendra "first shot the others, then shot himself," Interior Minister Ram Chandra Poudel told the Reuters news agency early today.
The dead included Dipendra, 29; his parents, King Birendra, 55, and Queen Aishwarya, 51; and his younger siblings, Princess Sruti and Prince Nirajan. The total number of dead was not clear, but some sources said it was as many as 12.
The reason for the killings at one of the royal residences was not immediately clear, though some reports quoted an unidentified official as saying the crown prince was angered by his mother's opposition to his choice of a bride.
The king's younger brother, Prince Gyanendra, who is next in line to the throne, was said to be in the Royal Chitwan National Park when the killings occurred at 10:40 p.m. A helicopter was sent to bring him back to Katmandu, about 80 miles to the northeast, according to reports from the capital.
The U.S. State Department said Friday that all available sources indicate that reports about the royal massacre are true. The killings apparently were the result of an "incredible quarrel in the family that went incredibly bad," not the political insurgency, said one U.S. official, who requested anonymity.
The State Department said in a statement Friday that "our embassy in Nepal says that King Birendra was reportedly killed late Friday in Katmandu along with other members of his family.
"It is not clear who was responsible, but it does not appear to have been a politically motivated assassination," the statement continued. "The embassy and the department will be monitoring the situation closely and will keep Americans in Nepal informed of developments."
The shootings turn the political situation in a country struggling to make a democratic transition--and already destabilized by insurgency--"topsy-turvy," the U.S. official said.
"We don't know how it will play out politically in a country that is already facing serious problems," he said.
"There's a danger that the Maoists will try to take advantage of the situation even if they had nothing to do with it."
Another issue is: What will the army do? It's been a bulwark to the king. The situation at the moment is "imponderable," the official said.
At the same time, U.S. officials said the government remains in place because Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala runs day-to-day affairs.
"There is a constitutional government that will be there tomorrow morning," the U.S. official said late Friday.
Birendra, the Harvard-educated king, assumed the throne in 1972. He introduced limited democracy, but in 1990 the security forces tried to crush what began as nonviolent protests by killing as many as 300 people.
A parliamentary government was established and the king was stripped of most of his powers, reducing him to a virtual figurehead.
Birendra's death in Friday's palace massacre left Nepal facing another in a string of crises that continue to drain a country better known for the endless majesty of the world's highest peak, Mt. Everest.
Crown Prince Dipendra had what one Western official called a "troubled youth," but in his 20s he began to take on more responsibility as a roving ambassador and an advocate for AIDS awareness.
A year ago, the crown prince completed a week of army parachute training, just as his father had when the king was a young man. During the last decade, the prince made several trips abroad to attend royal weddings, coronations and funerals, and the Sydney Olympics.
In 1994, he traveled to Tibet at the invitation of the Chinese government, and four years later he went to Pakistan for talks with the country's then-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.
Crown Prince Dipendra returned to Katmandu from his most recent trip May 2 after an eight-day visit to Japan, where he lunched at court with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, and did a tour to learn more about information technology and disaster prevention.
Although kings have reigned in Nepal for about 2,500 years, the country's current royal family belongs to the Shah Dynasty established in 1768, when Prithvi Narayan Shah united several kingdoms of the Nepal Valley and declared Katmandu the capital.
The Shah Dynasty traces its ancestral roots to the town of Gorkha, which gave its name to regiments of the British and Indian armies. The Nepalese soldiers still serve in those units, known for centuries as tenacious fighters.
Friday's royal bloodletting was not the first for a dynasty that was involved in ruthless power struggles in the 19th century. In an 1846 palace coup, Jung Bahadur Rana invited hundreds of Nepal's senior political and military leaders to a party and then ordered soldiers to massacre them.
Rana declared himself prime minister, established a "shadow dynasty" and allowed the Shah kings to stay on as figureheads in a country closed to the outside world.
The legitimate Shah monarchy wasn't restored until 1951, after King Tribhuvan fled to India.
The Indian government negotiated the king's return to power, but he died four years later and the reign of Birendra's father, King Mahendra, began the Shah Dynasty's final decline to a monarchy with only ceremonial powers.
Watson reported from New Delhi and Wright from Washington.
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The Royal Family
Crown Prince Dipendra was the first of three children born to Nepal's king and queen:
Nepal Fact Sheet
* Population: About 22 million
* Religions: Hinduism (89.5%), Buddhism (5.3%), Islam (2.6%). Nepal is the world's only officially Hindu nation.
* Official language: Nepali. Hindi and Bihari widely spoken. English used in official and commercial circles.
* Literacy: Estimated at 40%