x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

27 Maoists prisoners for two hostages 'not good enough'

Rebels reject prisoner swap, adding fresh demands, including the lifting of a ban on some Maoist groups in Orissa and filing charges against its policemen accused of rape.

NEW DELHI // Maoist rebels made more demands yesterday after India said it would release 27 prisoners in exchange for two hostages being held by separate groups.

The hostages, the state legislator Jhina Hikaka and Paulo Bosusco, an Italian tourist agency operator, were kidnapped last month.

Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Orissa state, said his government would take "legal steps" to secure the release of the prisoners.

"As you can see, the state government has made this gesture on humanitarian grounds," he said in the state assembly on Thursday. "I hope that the Maoists will reciprocate in a similar spirit and release the MLA [member of the legislative assembly] and the Italian national immediately."

Four of the prisoners would be exchanged for Mr Bosusco, including the wife of the group's secretary.

The offer was turned down by Orissa State Organising Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), the group holding Mr Bosusco. The group issued a fresh set of demands, including the lifting of a ban on some Maoist groups in Orissa and filing charges against its policemen accused of rape. The Maoists said the demands must be met by Tuesday but did not specify the consequences if they were not.

Mr Bosusco, who runs a tourist agency in Orissa, was abducted while he was on a trek with an Italian tourist, Claudio Colangelo, who was also kidnapped. Mr Colangelo was freed last month in a goodwill gesture.

Italian authorities, including the consul general Joel Melchiori, have been working with the Orissa government to expedite Mr Bosusco's release.

Mr Hikaka was kidnapped by a Maoist unit in the state's Koraput district.

In return for Mr Hikaka's freedom, Mr Patnaik promised to facilitate the release of the other 23 prisoners, including eight Maoist insurgents.

Some commentators yesterday saw the offer to release prisoners as a sign of weakness.

"The Maoists will almost certainly see this as capitulation," said Sudeep Chakravarti, a Goa based analyst of the Maoist insurgency. "In a way, perhaps the Orissa government did not have a choice, especially given the foreign nationality of one of the hostages."

Taking hostages, Mr Chakravarti said, "has not been a traditional part of the Maoist playbook. They've been doing this only recently". The tactic is being used more, he said, because it has proven effective and because their position has been weakened after India intensified army operations against the rebels.

"It has been a long time since the Maoists have been as much on the defensive as they are now," he said. "And frankly, I would not be surprised if they escalated this tactic in the near future."

In an editorial, the Indian Express said the Orissa government was giving in to theMaoists".

The chief minister's "decision will be shadowed by his state's overall record against" Maoists, the editorial said. "That is far below average, when compared to its neighbours — Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, even Jharkhand and West Bengal."

ssubramanian@thenational.ae