BHUBANESWAR: After being in captivity for nearly a month, Italian hostage Paolo Bosusco was released by Maoists today under a swap deal with the Odisha government for freeing five jailed ultras.
However, the fate of ruling BJD MLA Jhina Hikaka was still unknown with another Maoist group holding him hostage since March 24 refusing to release him unless 30 rebels, including the one accused in the killing of 55 policemen, are set free.
Twenty-nine days after being abducted, 54-year-old Bosusco was handed over by the Maoists to their mediator Dandapani Mohanty in the presence of some journalists near Raikia in tribal-dominated Kandhamal district.
A visibly relieved Bosusco told newsmen, "I must thank the Odia people for all their love and friendship that they have given me for the last 22 years. I have special love for Odisha."
Mohanty said he was called by Sabyasachi Panda, leader of the Maoists' Odisha State Organising Committee yesterday and proceeded to Kandhamal.
"I met Panda who handed over the Italian to me this morning nera Raikia. Bosusco was then brought here and handed over to the Odisha government," he said.
Bosusco, a Puri-based tour guide, had been abducted along with 61-year-old Italian tourist Colangelo on March 14 while trekking in the forests of the Daringbadi area in Kandhamal district.
Maoists freed Colangelo on March 25 as a "goodwill gesture" but kept Bosusco hostage for fulfilment of their demands.
"We are relieved and happy," Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. He also appealed to the abductors of Hikaka to release the 37-year-old Laxmipur MLA immediately, unharmed and in good health.
Italian Ambassador Giacomo Sanfelice di Monteforte met Bosusco soon after he was brought here.
"I am happy for the release of Bosusco. I will like to express my gratitude to Indian authorities and particularly to Odisha Chief Minister for all the assistance and cooperation given for the safe release of Bosusco."
His release came two days after top Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda's wife Subhashree Panda alias Mili Panda was released from jail following her acquittal by a Gunupur court in an encounter case of 2004.
"Since the issues raised by Panda in his pamphlet have been addressed in the chief minister's statements in the Assembly and the joint statement of government representatives and two mediators, he should release Bosusco immediately," the Home Secretary had said yesterday.
"The mediators nominated by the Maoists holding Bosusco hostage have also conveyed this message to Sabyasachi Panda," Behera had said
Though the Itaian hostage drama came to an end, the Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee of CPI (Maoist), which is behind the abduction of the tribal MLA, stuck to its demand for immediate release of 30 prisoners, including Chenda Bhusanam alias Ghasi, involved in the killing of at least 55 police personnel in exchange for Hikaka's freedom.
The Naxals in a letter last night also warned that they would be compelled to decide the fate of Hikaka in a "praja" court (people's court) if the government makes undue delay in meeting their demands or tries any other method.
The state government, on its part, has made it clear that a legal process has to be followed for the 23 people whose release it has decided to facilitate and bail petitions for these persons must be moved quickly.
Meanwhile, Hikaka's wife Kaushalya once again appealed to the abductors to immediately release her husband without causing any harm as "he is innocent."
She also urged the government to take appropriate steps for her husband's release.
Subhashree was one of the seven persons whose release the Maoists had demanded as one of the conditions to set free the Italian, who had spent the last 19 years in Puri running a travel agency.
The state government had agreed to release five persons, including Subhashree, in order to secure the freedom of Bosusco unharmed and in good health.
Mohanty, who along with B D Sharma held talks on behalf of the Maoists with state government officials on the Italian hostage issue, said he handed over a copy of the joint statement to Panda, who was not fully satisfied.
The Naxals wanted the government to withdraw cases against prisoners sought to be freed instead of trying their release on bail, he said.
"However, after a long discussion, I persuaded the Maoists to release Bosusco. I told them that the Italian is our guest and he should not be held hostage for a very long period," Mohanty said.
The Italian's release came five days after the state government representatives, led by Home Secretary U N Behera and the two Maoist-named mediators, signed a joint statement on April 7 on the 13-point charter of demands placed by the abductors.
Even after signing of the joint statement, Bosusco's release was delayed apparently due to inability of the Maoist mediators to send the document to Panda.
Bosusco, who was medically examined by doctors after being brought to the State Guest House here, said "I am very sorry that time has come to leave India when work is finished.
But my history of love with Odisha will never be finished.
Odia people will always be part of my heart," he said.
Asked if they were taking photographs of tribals defying the government ban, as alleged by Naxals, he said, "No, it is not true."
Meanwhile, Behera told reporters that local officials in Kandhamal district had tried to prevent Bosusco from visiting certain areas keeping his safety in view.
"I don't think he had committed any offence," he said in reply to a question.
If it was found that he had committed any offence, action would be taken, he said.
On the abduction of Hikaka, he reiterated the state government's stand that bail petitions be filed to facilitate the release of 15 Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangha members and eight Maoists.
The state government also made a fresh appeal to the Maoists to release Hikaka unharmed.