The prospects of BJD MLA Jhina Hikaka's release from Maoist captivity brightened today as abductors who are demanding that their 30 jailed associates be freed extended the deadline till April 18 and withdrew the name a hardcore Naxal from the list.
The Odisha government is hopeful that the 37-year-old tribal legislator from Laxmipur, who had been abducted on March 24 in Koraput, would be released by the Maoists soon.
In an audio message, a leader of the Maoists' Andhra Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee set the new deadline at 5 PM of April 18 for the release of 29 rebels, Nihar Ranjan Patnaik, a Koraput-based lawyer who fights cases for the Maoists, said.
The Maoists, who had earlier demanded release of 30 prisoners to free the tribal MLA, have omitted the name of Chenda Bhusanam alias Ghasi, accused of killing at least 55 police personnel, from the list, he said.
Opposing any move to release Ghasi, the state police force, including the Odisha Police Association, threatened to boycott anti-Naxal operations if hardcore Maoists like him were freed to secure release of the legislator.
"The new message says after release of 29 detainees with the exception of one Ghasi ... That after this is done the release of the MLA is possible," Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said before leaving for Delhi on a five-day visit.
"I will be in touch from Delhi continuously about the matters relating to the release of the tribal MLA," he said appealing once again to the Maoists to release Hikaka.
The chief minister, who visited the MLA's family on Friday, said, "The anguish ... The agony that they are going through is inhuman. So I again appeal to those Maoists who hold him to release him immediately and in good health."
The abductors, however, stuck to their condition of a prisoner-hostage exchange. They want MLA's wife, Kaushalya and the lawyer to accompany 29 freed rebels to Balipeta in Koraput district for freedom of Hikaka, Patnaik said.
Stressing that the Maoists no longer seek the release of Ghasi, Home Secretary U N Behera said it appears from the fresh audio message that the ultras would release the MLA on April 18.
The message about extension of deadline was the first communication from the MLA's abductors in the last four days.
In view of the new message, it is necessary that bail petitions for 15 members of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh and eight members of the CPI (Maoist) are filed immediately, so that their release can be facilitated, the home secretary said.
"The state government once again appeals to AOBSZC to release Hikaka while the process of release of 15 members of CMAS and eight members of Maoists is on," he said.
The government is ready to release 25 persons, including 15 CMAS members and eight Maoists, while two others figured in the list of rebels to be freed as per the demands of another group of Naxals who had abducted two Italians, he said.
"Government has not taken any decsion on the release of four other persons. The legal aspects are being examined," the home secretary said, adding that the "release through bail route is speedy one. Therefore, the governmentt insists on filing of bail petitions early."
"We hope some bail petitions will be made tomorrow. They have their advocates. They can submit petitions in the courts. The state government will provide all assistance to facilitate their release," Behera said
Though Ghasi's name is out of the list now, it may still be difficult for the Odisha government to arrange physical presence of freed prisoners at Balipeta in the Naxal hotbed of Narayanpatna in Koraput district.
In view of the rebels' reluctance to seek bail and their insistence on complete withdrawal of the cases against them, the state government would have to make special efforts in order to convince them, an official said.
Behera said efforts were on to convince lawyers of Maoists and CMAS members to move bail petitions and the government was hopeful that they would do so quickly.
The fresh message from the abductors came as a sign of relief for the state government which had started exploring back channel negotiations with the ultras to strike a swap deal.
Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik visited Koraput on Friday and held a meeting with local leaders, where the back channel negotiation option figured, a senior official said, adding the Maoist group's refusal to hold talks through mediators had made the task tough.