Odisha talks halted as Maoists seize legislator

Bhubaneswar/New Delhi : Talks to secure the release of two Italians abducted 10 days ago by Maoists in Odisha were suspended Saturday after the rebels daringly kidnapped a ruling party legislator and killed a police officers. The two Maoist-named mediators also announced they were withdrawing from the talks.

The dramatic developments pushed the fate of all three hostages into uncertainty. The government did not say whether it will resume the talks or will it use force against the rebels.

Meanwhile, a statement from Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s office said that the two Maoist-named mediators, tribal expert B.D. Sharma and social activist Dandapani Mohanty, have withdrawn from the talks after the latest abduction and other violent acts by Maoists.

“The state government expects that the Maoists will very soon nominate their new mediators for negotiation for the release of two Italian citizens as well as for the release of the young MLA,” it added.

The ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) accused the Congress-led central government of not cooperating with it to free the Italians, while the Congress said law and order was a state subject.

In an unexpected development, the Maoists kidnapped BJD legislator and a popular tribal leader Jhina Hikaka, 37, early Saturday even as the government held a dialogue with the rebels through their mediators for the release of Italians Bosusco Paolo, 54, and Claudio Colangelo, 61.

Hikaka, a first time legislator who represents Laxmipur constituency, was returning from a party meeting in Koraput district when his vehicle was stopped on the road near Toyaput, a hilly area, about 500 kms from Bhubaneswar, at about 1 a.m. Saturday.

Police sources said some 100 rebels were involved in the abduction.

While holding on to him, the rebels freed his driver and his guard who were accompanying him.

After the abduction, the Maoists who had also dug the road, left behind a leaflet restating their 13 demands they have set for the release of the Italians and demanded that these should be met at the earliest, police said.

The demands include a ban on the visit of tourists to the tribal areas, halt to anti-Maoist operations, and release of several prisoners.

Hikaka’s wife, Kaushalya Hikaka, said her husband is a popular tribal leader and had no enemy.

She appeared on local television channels to appeal to the Maoists to release her husband. “Please release my husband. He has never caused harm to any body,” she said.

Chief Minister Patnaik held meetings with police and other officials. He said his government was handling the latest kidnapping on a crisis mode.

After several hours of discussion for the third consecutive day Saturday, both the government-appointed mediators and the Maoist interlocutors announced the suspension of the dialogue over the legislator’s abduction.

Saying they were backing off only for now, they, however, did not specify when the talks will resume.

Mohanty and Sharma, who were named by the rebels to mediate, blamed both the government and the Maoists for the disruption.

The two told reporters that after the abduction of the Italian tourists, the state committee of the banned Communist Party of India-Maoist declared a ceasefire, while the government also promised that there would be no coercive action by the security forces.

“But the fact is that while we are discussing in Bhubaneswar, unfortunate incidents of disrupting peace continued in many parts of the state,” they said. “We feel that this is a mockery of peaceful talks and negotiations.

“We, therefore, suggest that the negotiation be kept under suspension,” they said.

Home Secretary U.N. Behera, one of the negotiators from the government side, said the decision to suspend the talks was taken on the request of the Maoist mediators.

The two Italians were abducted from the border of Ganjam and Kandhamal district March 14.

The rebels earlier shot dead a police sub-inspector in Malkangiri, a Maoist stronghold, late Thursday even as the talks were on.

The kidnapping incident had an echo in the assembly when Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members created uproar, forcing Speaker Pradip Amat to adjourn it a number of times and finally for the day.

The BJP also asked the central government to wage a war against the Maoists.

Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said the kidnapping of a legislator was a matter of serious concern.

“But the state government is competent to handle the situation and it comes under the state’s responsibility. “The centre has been providing all necessary help whenever the state has asked for it,” he added.

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