By Gopal Sharma
SHAKTIKHOR, Nepal (Reuters) - Nepal's Maoist former rebels shed their camouflage uniforms Friday and began leaving their camps to join their families in a first step to their reintegration five years after the end of a civil war.
The rehabilitation of more than 19,000 former rebels is seen as crucial for the stability of the nascent Himalayan republic wedged between India and China.
The Maoists led an armed revolt for the abolition of the 239-year-old monarchy and say they champion the interests of the destitute in South Asia's poorest country.
Authorities began sending home combatants wanting to end their military career and rejoin their families. More than 7,300 fighters are expected to leave the camps within two weeks.
"I am sorry because I leave behind friends with whom I fought and lived together. But I am happy because the departure from the camp will help move forward the peace process," said Udaya Bahadur Chalaune, 34, a rebel commander in the jungle camp of Shaktikhor, 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Kathmandu.
"This will also help the preparation of the new republican constitution."
The Maoists are now part of Nepal's political mainstream. Baburam Bhattarai, a senior Maoist leader, was elected prime minister in August last year.
However, their future has remained a major sticking point in the peace process, which ended the decade-long conflict in 2006 - a revolt which killed more than 16,000 people.
"This will boost the stalled peace process, but several potential complications lie ahead," said analyst Bishnu Raj Upreti, who teaches conflict management at Kathmandu University.
The 27 Maoist camps set up in 2006 were monitored by the United Nations until January last year, when a government committee took over. The Maoists and other political parties agreed in November to integrate some fighters into the army and provide education, training and financial aid to the rest.
Upreti said remaining challenges included decisions on the former rebels' ranks and training and their new relationship with the army soldiers they fought against in the war.
Those Maoists wishing to join the army will remain in the camps for now. The military establishment had resisted integrating their former foes, saying they had been indoctrinated.
Authorities say the role of the Maoists will be restricted to non-combat operations such as the construction of development projects, emergency rescue operations and patrolling forests. Terms of their joining the army are yet to be agreed upon.
Nepal's first constitution after the abolition of the monarchy was meant to be drafted by May 2010. But differences over its content and a lack of agreement over the future of the rebels put back the deadline, now set for May this year.
(Editing by Rajesh Kumar Singh and Ron Popeski)