KATHMANDU - Fighting broke out in Nepal's parliament early Tuesday, with Maoist lawmakers throwing chairs and injuring four security officers, as tensions ran high ahead of a deadline to complete a new national constitution.
Hours later, the opposition Maoists began a nationwide general strike, seeking to prevent the ruling coalition from pushing through proposals without common agreement ahead of Thursday's deadline.
They say discussions on the constitution should continue until a final agreement is reached -- even if that means missing the deadline.
Tuesday's strike shut down factories, shops, schools and public transport in the Himalayan nation, which has endured prolonged political limbo since 2006, when the Maoists ended their decade-long insurgency.
Police said they had arrested 19 people for vandalising buses, trucks and cars and the usually gridlocked streets of Kathmandu were clear during rush hour, as many people heeded the Maoist call to stay home.
Despite extensive discussions, Nepal's lawmakers have failed to agree on a charter and are widely expected to miss Thursday's deadline, further deepening popular disillusionment with the political process of the young republic.
Disagreements persist on crucial issues, with the opposition calling for new provinces to be created along lines that could favour historically marginalised communities such as the "untouchable" Dalit caste and the Madhesi ethnic minority.
Other parties say such a move would be divisive and a threat to national unity.
With just two days left to draft the charter, the Constituent Assembly met late into the night, but Speaker Subash Nembang was forced to halt the debate after Maoist and Madhesi lawmakers scuffled with ruling party politicians.
Rajan Bhattarai, a lawmaker with the ruling UML party, said two fellow MPs had been struck by flying microphones, and blamed the Maoists for the violence.
"We condemn this behaviour, especially when Maoist leaders Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai frequently assured of consensus via peaceful methods," he said, referring to the party's two highest-profile leaders.
Nepal has had two elections and six prime ministers since the civil war between Maoist insurgents and the state ended in 2006.
But its warring political parties have failed to make headway on many disputed issues and conclude the peace process.
The resulting political instability has deterred investment and pushed annual growth down from 6.1 per cent in 2008 to 3.6 per cent in 2013, according to World Bank data.
There are also growing signs of popular unrest. Last week police arrested more than 70 protesters for attacking vehicles or coercing shopkeepers to close their stores during a Maoist-led strike in Kathmandu.
Tuesday's strike is backed by a hardline group which split from the main Maoist party in June 2012, accusing its leaders of betraying their radical principles.