In a major breakthrough in the hostage crisis in Odisha the Sabyasachi Panda led Orissa State Organising Committee of the CPI (Maoist) on Thursday freed Italian citizen Basusco Paolo (55) after keeping him in captivity for 29 day.
The fate of MLA Jhina Hikaka, who was abducted from Koraput on March 24, however still remains uncertain.
The Maoists handed over Paolo to social activist Dandapani Mohanty - who along with former IAS officer and tribal rights activist BD Sharma negotiated for his release - near Raikia in Kandhamal district, about 250 km from Bhubaneswar, at 5 am. From there, Mohanty brought Paolo straight to the State Guest House in Bhubaneswar.
"I am fine. I was treated well," said Paolo after coming out of the car wearing a white shirt as photographers clicked his pictures.
He was however not allowed to meet the media persons who were waiting outside and ushered in to meet the Italian ambassador Giacomo Sanfelice di Monteforte and consul general Joel Nechiori who were waiting for him.
Talking to reporters Dandapani Mohanty said the OSOC requested him to drive Paolo straight to Bhubaneswar to hand him over to the Odisha government. "However he showed his displeasure that the government had decided to release the prisoners on bail. They demanded that the government should withdraw cases on innocent persons like Arati Majhi to expedite their release," Mohanty said.
Talking to reporters, Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik said: "The state government is naturally relieved after Paolo's release."
He appealed to the Maoists, who have kept Hikaka as hostage, to release him.
Paolo and fellow Italian Claudio Colangelo were abducted on March 14 by the OSOC in Kandhamal district where they had gone on a trekking expedition. On March 25, Panda had released Colangelo as a "goodwill gesture" but kept Paolo in captivity demanding the state government to fulfil the rebels' 13 demands, including release of seven persons from jail.
The government negotiators led by home secretary UN Behera and Maoist backed mediators - former IAS officer and tribal rights activist BD Sharma and social activist Dandapani Mohanty - reached an agreement on Saturday regarding release of five persons from jail in exchange of Paolo's release and government stand on the 13-point demand.
However, Paolo's freedom was delayed by another four day as Panda claimed that he did not receive the copy of the agreement even as his wife, Subhashree Panda, whose name figured in the government list of to be released, was acquitted by court on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, offering a ray of hope for Paolo, Panda issued an audiotape in the media in which he said he had yet to receive the joint agreement between mediators but got information from reliable sources that the Odisha government had made its stand clear on the Maoists' 13-point demand.
We had asked for release of seven people. The government has agreed to facilitate release of five. We welcome the steps taken by the government," Panda said.
On the other hand, the Andhra Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee of the CPI (Maoist) has stuck to its demand that Hikaka would be released only if the government freed 30 Maoists and others from jail. "If the government resorts to conspiracy, we would decide the fate of Hikaka in a people's court," AOBSZC spokesperson Jagabandhu said in a letter on Wednesday.
In another development, a court in Gajapati district rejected the bail for the release of Arati Majhi, whose name figure in the list of 27 detainees in exchange for the hostages. On the other hand, a court in Koraput acquitted Gananath Patra, advisor to liftist tribal outfit Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangha. Both OSOC and AOBSZC had demanded Patra's release, but the state government had refused to include his name in its list of 27 persons.
Patra himself had refused bail on Tuesday objecting conditions to his movement.