BHUBANESWAR: As the deadline set by two Maoist groups in the twin hostage crisis ends today, the Odisha government seemed to have toughened its stance vis-a-vis their new demands.
The pitch has been queered further by the threat of the state police to boycott anti-Naxal operations if hardcore ultras are freed by the government as per a deal to release BJD MLA Jhina Hikaka and Italian Paolo Bosusco.
Meanwhile, top Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda's wife Subhashree Das alias Mili Panda, whose release the abductors of Bosusco had demanded and the government also agreed to, was acquitted by a Gunupur fast track court in a case relating to an encounter between Naxals and securitymen at Kutinguda forest in Rayagada district.
Subhashree was set free soon after being acquitted by the court due to lack of evidence, her lawyer Brahmananda Patnaik said.
The fresh demand made by the abductors of Hikaka is immediate release 30 prisoners in exchange for the MLA's freedom, while the captors of Bosusco wanted a clarification on the number and names of rebels to be freed.
The state government, however, refused to buckle and toughened its approach as it asked both Maoist groups to move bail pleas for quick release of detenus instead of seeking their immediate release and physical presence for executing the prisoner-hostage swap.
Home Secretary U N Behera said last night that the government has agreed to facilitate the release of 23 persons, including 15 members of Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangha (CMAS), in exchange of MLA's freedom.
Since their release from jail involved a judicial process of grant of bail by courts concerned, the detainees have to file bail applications, said Behera, who had led the three-member government side in talks with Maoist-named mediators for release of Bosusco.
On the Maoists' suggestion that the MLA's wife should go to Balipeta village in Koraput district with the detainees of CMAS and CPI (Maoist) for hand-over of Hikaka, Behera said, "It is advised that steps be taken on behalf of the 23 detainees to file their bail petitions."
The home secretary said bail petitions in respect of those who are to be released from jail for Italian's freedom may also be filed.
Asserting that the government has given commitment on release of prisoners for freedom of both the MLA and the Italian, he said, "We hope the captors will release the two hostages immediately, unharmed and in good health."
On the abductors of Bosusco asking the government to clarify how many ultras it would free, Behera said it appears that the contents of the joint statement, signed by the government representatives and the Maoist mediators, had not reached Sabyasachi Panda, secretary of the Odisha State Organising Committee of Maoists.
The state government asked Maoist-named mediators B D Sharma and Dandapani Mohanty to send a copy of the joint statement to Panda so that any confusion that he has can be cleared and Bosusco be released.
The government had earlier sought opinion of the police on the kidnappers' demand for the release of hardcore Maoists, including Chenda Bhusanam alias Ghasi, accused in the killing of at least 55 police personnel.
"We will oppose tooth and nail any move to free hardcore Maoists. If necessary, we will launch a vigorous agitation to prevent their release," Odisha Police Association President Sawarmal Sharma told reporters.
If the situation warrants, police personnel would be forced to pull out of anti-Maoist operations, Sharma said, adding sacrifices made by the police would go in vain and the force would be demoralised if hardcore ultras are freed.
Sending a similar warning, Odisha Constable, Havildar and Sepoy Mahasangha said police personnel would boycott anti-Maoist operations if hardcore ultras are set free.
"We have sought opinion of the police on whether the fresh demands made by the abductors of the MLA can be met," Chief Secretary B K Patnaik told reporters here, adding the legal aspects need to be verified before taking any decision.
In a letter to the media, Andhra-Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee of Maoists not only sought immediate release of more prisoners, but also their presence for the MLA's release.
The ultras wanted Hikaka's wife Kaushalya to reach Balipeta in Naxal-hit Narayanpatna area today (April 10) along with 30 rebels, including 23 people whose release the Odisha government had decided to facilitate and seven more rebels.
The letter said the MLA's wife should also be accompanied by two Naxal-nominated mediators -- Sharma and Mohanty -- engaged in the Italian hostage crisis and Koraput-based lawyer Nihar Ranjan Patnaik.
One of the Maoist-nominated mediators Sharma has, meanwhile, left the state capital for Delhi.
The Maoists said they would hand over the abducted MLA to them, provided they do not bring along any police or intelligence official.
The letter came on Sunday night, a day after the Maoists extended the deadline for fulfilment of their demands till April 10. They had initially fixed April 5 as deadline and then extended it till April 7.
As the twin-hostage crises turned murkier, opposition Congress and BJP hit out at the BJD government accusing it of failing to resolve the issue.
While Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee president Niranjan Patnaik dubbed the government as "ineffective and weak", BJP leader B B Harichandan accused it of failing to work in the larger interest of the people.
However, senior ruling BJD leader and Rajya Sabha MP Pyari Mohan Mohapatra said there was no other option before the government than to consider the demands of the Maoists.
"It is easy to brand the government as weak, but what a strong government can do when two hostages are in captivity of Maoists?" he wondered.
Shankaracharya of Puri, Swami Nischalananda Saraswati has also expressed unhappiness over the proposed prisoner swap with the Maoists to secure release of two hostages from their captivity and said all aspects should be considered while making any move in this regard.