BHUBANESHWAR, INDIA // Maoist rebels who abducted two Italian men over the weekend halted their insurgent campaign in eastern India while they negotiate their demand for an end to a government crackdown.
Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Orissa state, said state security forces would also stop operations against the insurgents during the talks.
The rebels said yesterday the two Italian men were safe and in good condition.
"They are being provided food and other things," the Orissa rebel leader Sunil Sabiryasachi Panda said in a recording sent to media outlets. "They have no problem at all."
The rebels named three negotiators for the talks starting yesterday. They have threatened to turn the Italians over to fellow rebels in Chattisgargh state if their demands are not met - a situation that could complicate a settlement.
The insurgents, who have fought for decades for more land and jobs for the poor, are demanding a permanent end to security operations and the release of Maoist rebels from jails in exchange "for the safe release of the two Italian hostages", according to one of the rebels' three negotiators, the civil rights activist Dandapani Mohanty.
But another negotiator raised doubts about the government's sincerity before the talks even began.
"Past experience shows the state government has failed to keep its word," Biswapriya Kanungo, a lawyer and activist, said.
Mr Kanungo and Mr Mohanty said they preferred to be seen as negotiators for both sides, not just the rebels.
Mr Mohanty said no talks could start until the rebels' third negotiator, the Maoist leader Narayan Sanyal, is released from jail in the bordering state of Jharkhand.
The Italians - an Orissa tour operator Paolo Bosusco, 54, and Claudio Colangelo, 61, a tourist - were kidnapped on Saturday while trekking in Kandhamal district. The Indian cook and driver they were with were released by the rebels the same day.
Inspired by the Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, the rebels have launched attacks against government, law enforcement and infrastructure for decades across a wide swath of north-eastern and eastern India. They have also abducted local officials, releasing them only after tough negotiations with the government.
The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has called the insurgency India's biggest internal security threat. At least 2,000 police, militants, rebels and civilians have been killed in the conflict.