AFP, KATHMANDU - The royal flag was taken down from Nepal's royal palace Thursday as the Himalayan nation celebrated a vote consigning its centuries-old monarchy to the history books and declaring a republic.
The country was marking late Wednesday's decision by a Maoist-dominated constitutional assembly with a two-day public holiday, and king Gyanendra -- facing a two-week deadline to evict -- was said to be packing his bags.
"The royal flag was replaced by Nepal's national flag inside the palace," a palace source said. "The flag has been changed as part of the government decision to implement a republic."
In a landmark vote capping a peace accord between the Maoists and mainstream parties, lawmakers voted just before midnight on Wednesday to abolish the 240-year-old Hindu monarchy and establish a secular republic.
It also ordered that the main palace in Kathmandu be turned into a museum.
Nepal's army, long seen as a bastion of royal support, has said it will respect the verdict of the assembly.
"The decision has been taken by the constituent assembly and it must be abided by by all stakeholders," said army spokesman Brigadier General Ramindra Chhetri.
According to Kishore Shrestha, editor of the Nepali-language weekly newspaper Jana Aastha, the king was packing up and could move to a royal lodge on the outskirts of Kathmandu on Friday.
The Maoists, clear winners of last month's elections to the constitutional assembly, waged a decade of war to overthrow what they view as a backward, caste-ridden structure that kept most of Nepal's 29 million people living in dire poverty .
They have repeatedly warned King Gyanendra he faces "strong punishment" if he refuses to bow out gracefully.
"It's a great day for Nepal," said Damodar Mainali, 20, a Kathmandu resident celebrating the radical change for the impoverished country. "The new Nepal belongs to people like me."
Maoist spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara said Nepal was now free of "feudal tradition," and promised "a radical social and economic transformation."
Many ordinary Nepalese are delighted to see the back of the dour, unpopular king as well as his son and would-be heir, Crown Prince Paras -- notorious for his playboy lifestyle.
Gyanendra ascended the throne amid grief and suspicion in 2001 after most the royal family was slain in a palace massacre by the then crown prince, Dipendra.
Dipendra, who had been forbidden from marrying the woman he loved, gunned down his parents, the king and queen, and seven other royals before apparently turning the gun on himself.
Gyanendra was at the centre of many conspiracy theories linking him to the killings, and his unpopularity only deepened when he sacked the government and embarked on a period of autocratic rule in early 2005.
"There was no development under the monarchy," said Prakash Karki, 26, a Kathmandu businessman. "There will be now that the people will run the country."
United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon welcomed the vote, saying Nepalese "have clearly spoken for peace and change."
The United States, which continues to list the former rebels as a foreign "terrorist" organisation, urged "forward political developments" in Nepal, US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington.
The vote in the 601-member assembly saw just four lawmakers oppose the radical change.
But a leading Hindu group in Nepal threatened protests to prevent what they said would undermine the neutrality and unity of a country wedged between Asian giants China and India.
A Nepalese woman dances in Kathmandu as she awaits news that the Himalayan state has been declared a republic
©AFP - Pedro Ugarte
"Monarchy and Hinduism are necessary so that the country does not fragment," said Hem Bahadur Karki, the head of the World Hindu Federation.
Many remain wary of the Maoists, whose loyalists are regularly accused of using violence and intimidation.
"Whenever I go out there's a bomb blast, a strike or a demonstration. These are the daily worries," said Kathmandu shopkeeper Seema Pradhan, 25. "I hope they will be able to make things better."