KATHMANDU - Nepal's former Maoist rebels gave the government a month on Tuesday to pave the way for a unity government headed by them or face an indefinite countrywide shutdown in a conflict that threatens a fragile peace process.

The Maoists, who waged a decade-long civil war from 1996, headed a coalition government last year after their surprise win in national elections under a 2006 peace deal.

But they quit the government in May after a failed attempt to sack the country's army chief, prompting the president to intervene.

They have been protesting against the president since then and want a return to power, saying they were unconstitutionally forced to quit.

On Tuesday, Maoist chief and former prime minister Prachanda said the government must correct the president's move and clear the way for a national government by Jan. 24 and resolve the political stalemate.

If that is not done we'll be compelled to organise an indefinite strike across the country, Prachanda told a gathering of thousands of his supporters in Kathmandu.

We'll create a storm of mass protests which will sweep the government away, he said, amid cheering crowds waving hammer-and-sickle flags.

Tuesday was the final day of a three-day general strike that forced shops to down shutters, disrupted public transport and caused violent clashes in which dozens were injured.

The government has refused to step down but Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal says he is prepared to appoint Maoist members to his cabinet, backed by a loose alliance of 22 parties.
The political deadlock has delayed the preparation of a new constitution and rehabilitation of thousands of ex-Maoist guerrillas living in camps, key to cap the peace deal.

The Maoists want to be in the government during the constitution-writing process so they have a say, said Kunda Dixit, editor of the weekly Nepali Times.

(Editing by Bappa Majumdar and Sugita Katyal)