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Nepal's Maoists vowed Saturday never to return to guerrilla warfare and offered to give up leadership to an independent prime minister to take the Himalayan nation towards democracy.
Party leaders said at their general convention they would step down from government to seek a popular mandate to lead a "socialist revolution", six years after a decade-long insurgency which toppled the world's last Hindu monarchy.
"Let's agree on an independent person who will lead the government. And we will endorse this concept of a government led by an independent person to hold the election through this convention," said party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
Around 3,000 delegates and 100,000 supporters at the party's first general convention in 21 years in the southern town of Hetauda were greeted by a rousing opening address from Dahal, still known by his nom-de-guerre Prachanda.
"We were forced to launch the insurgency after adopting Marxism as a guiding principle. But we don't follow any ideology in its mechanical form. It's a science and it can be adapted," Prachanda said.
"We will institutionalise the gains we have made so far. We will not go back to guerrilla warfare... In this age of globalisation, a country's independence hinges on its economic strength. Times have changed and old ways have become redundant."
He called for a "socialist revolution" to promote economic growth and create jobs at home so that thousands of young Nepalis were no longer forced to seek work abroad.
An estimated 16,000 people died in the 1996-2006 conflict fought by the Maoists against the monarchy, which was deposed when the rebels turned to mainstream politics and took power in elections in 2008.
Rights campaigners say Nepal remains deeply divided and riven with gender and caste-based discrimination despite the Maoists' promise after the insurgency to create a more equal society.
In-fighting, including a split in the party last year, has confounded efforts to draw up a post-conflict constitution spelling out how Nepal should be run as a modern, democratic republic.
An interim assembly elected for the task was dissolved in May last year and elections promised for November were shelved amid quarreling among the main parties over which should lead a national unity government into the vote.
The Maoists now lead Nepal as the major partner in a fragile caretaker coalition that is carrying out the most essential tasks of government but has no popular mandate to make fundamental policy decisions.
"I will say that the people's war was right. We brought about tremendous changes in 10 years. Now, we have made federalism, peace and constitution our ultimate goal," said Prachanda's deputy, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai.
"(But) we will drown if the boat collapses. There are storms in our path and I would like to request our fellow leaders not to abandon this shaky boat like the proverbial ship's rats.
"I would like to assure that we will complete the task. We are in the same boat with all the major political parties of Nepal. Let's hold elections by May.
"We are willing to hand over the government to any party and participate in the polls conducted by the administration."
Hetauda, a small but rapidly growing provincial city 130 kilometres (80 miles) from Nepal's capital Kathmandu, has a population of around 80,000 but this is expected to swell as much as three-fold during the five-day convention.
A giant marquee constructed at the edge of a playground housed around 100,000 supporters for the inaugural session, with buildings across the city displaying the red hammer and sickle flag of the Maoists.
The opening speeches buoyed delegates, some of whom had travelled from as far as Norway and North Korea, and were even tentatively welcomed by opposition party leaders.
"Authoritarianism must end and change should come through peaceful means. We too are for socialism," said Ram Chandra Paudel, vice-president of the main opposition Nepali Congress party.
"I am hopeful that the convention will help transform the Maoists into a democratic party."