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Orissa suspends operations to secure bureaucrat's release

Home secretary G. K. Pillai says back- channel talks underway

BUCKLING under pressure a day after Maoists made an audacious swoop in Orissa by abducting Malkangiri collector R. Vineel Krishna, the state government suspended operations against the extremists -- one of the demands made by the officer's captors.

Orissa home secretary U. N. Behera said that combing operations had been suspended to facilitate the release of Krishna and junior engineer Pabitra Mohan Majhi, who too had been abducted by the extremists on Wednesday.

This is perhaps the first time that an IAS officer in the state has been targeted by the Lefts- wing extremists.

" We are also trying to negotiate with the ultras. We have asked Swami Agnivesh to mediate with them on our behalf," Behera said. The kidnappers are believed to be members of the Andhra-Orissa special zonal committee of the banned CPI (Maoist). Their abduction has been condemned by political parties, locals and civil rights organisations such as the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).

Only hours earlier, as the crisis over the kidnapping appeared to escalate, the Centre gave the green light to the Naveen Patnaik government for halting anti-Maoist operations to secure the safe release of the official. In Delhi, Union home secretary G.K. Pillai said back-channel talks were underway to secure Krishna's release.

The rebels have set stiff conditions for freeing the collector -- an IITMadras graduate -- and the JE. These include releasing Maoists lodged in state jails, winding up BSF camps in Maoist-dominated areas and halting the state's anti-Naxal operation. They have given the government 48 hours to consider their demands. Combing operations have been going on in Malkangiri, Koraput and Gajpati districts, besides parts of western Orissa.

The 36-year-old 2005 batch officer and Majhi, who was with him, were taken hostage in a remote part of the district near Jantapai village under the Kudumulgumma block. Malkangiri shares its border with Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Malkangiri district rural development agency director Balwant Singh, who was part of the official team that had accompanied the collector, said Krishna was abducted around 5 pm on Wednesday while he was returning with a JE to Papermetla village on a motorcycle. Sources in Malkangiri said the two were surrounded by a group of armed rebels near Badapada village.

The two officials and some other government functionaries had gone to the village in connection with a mass contact programme under which oldage pension and land title deeds were distributed among the beneficiaries.

They were returning from what is known as the "cut-off" area of Malkangiri when the rebels struck. The collector did not have his personal security officer with him. The Maoists are believed to be holding him hostage deep in a forest on the Orissa-Andhra Pradesh border.

Well-known social activist Swami Agnivesh has offered to mediate for the release of the collector. He has also appealed to the Maoists not to cause any harm to Krishna and the JE. Agnivesh told a local TV channel that the 48-hour deadline set by the Maoists was too stiff.

The administration came to know about the demands of the rebels after one of the two junior engineers released by them returned to Malkangiri with a letter. Sources in Orissa said the letter from the Maoists was carried by JE Damodar Suchet, who too had been in Krishna's party.

"We are evaluating all options and closely monitoring the situation," chief minister Naveen Patnaik said. He confirmed that he had received a letter stating the conditions that the rebels had set for the release of the two officials.

While a shocked Malkangiri town observed a spontaneous bandh in the wake of the incident and traffic on the Jeypore-Malkangiri road came to an abrupt halt, sources said two persons -- including an NGO activist -- had taken the initiative of negotiating the collector's release.

The state government was hoping that the seemingly huge local popular support for Krishna would contribute to his early release. Intellectuals, lawyers, teachers, school and college students as well as housewives staged a procession in the district headquarters.

'Free our beloved collector. Please release the tribal-friendly collector', read the placards carried by them, said a PTI report.

PUCL expressed concern over the abduction of Krishna and called upon the Maoists to immediately and unconditionally release the abducted officers. Pillai condemned the abduction, saying:

"I don't think there is any need for an operation to get him released. I am sure that the local support he has and the state government will be able to negotiate his release."

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Publication:Mail Today (New Delhi, India)
Date:Feb 18, 2011
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