Nepal is on the brink of a fresh political crisis, as a deadline for the presentation of a new federal constitution approaches.
The country's constituent assembly must produce the document by the end of Sunday or face disbandment.
A new constitution has been widely seen as being crucial to helping end the instability that has plagued the country since the end of a Maoist-led civil war in 2006, and the subsequent overthrow of the monarchy.
The debate over the constitution, however, has sharply divided public opinion, particularly on the issue of whether Nepal should be divided into states along ethnic lines.
There have been several violent protests in recent weeks, with ethnic groups staging demonstrations near the parliament building withere the constituent assembly of politicians convenes.
If the assembly, which doubles as a parliament, misses the deadline, set by the supreme court, it will be dissolved, creating a power vacuum in the South Asian country and risking further unrest in a nation dependent on aid and tourism.
"The demands for ethnic autonomy have become so strong that if they are not addressed they could lay the seeds for further conflict as happed in Sri Lanka and Aceh," said Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times weekly.
As the deadline approaches, rallies were banned around key government buildings in Kathmandu, the capital, including the prime minister's office.
The parliament building has been ringed by riot police, standing behind barbed wire barricades.
The Rajdhani daily said the army was on high alert and ready to step in if police failed to maintain security in the capital.
Disagreement over states
The new constitution is a key part of the peace deal struck with the Maoists to end their revolt. An agreement on the charter has been elusive, however, and the assembly has missed several deadlines already because of deep divisions over the number, boundaries and names of the nation's states.
The Maoists, who waged their revolt on a pledge to empower the country's many ethnic groups after centuries of exclusion and discrimination, dominate the assembly.
They say they want the creation of up to 14 states named after ethnic groups. Their call has been backed by several small Madhesi parties demanding an autonomous state in the country's southern plains.
"A constitution is not possible without federal states recognising the identity of ethnic groups," said senior Maoist leader Narayankaji Shrestha.
The Maoists' political opponents, however, say that carving up the country along ethnic lines would stoke tension between different castes.
Ram Sharan Mahat, a Nepali Congress party leader, said the Maoists "want to kill the assembly, not make the constitution" and stay in power.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|