Sukma (Chhattisgarh): Forces have suspended anti-Maoist operations in the south Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, where about 500 Maoists are said to be holding abducted Sukma Collector Alex Paul Menon hostage. Sources said security forces now know the exact location of the Collector and operations have been called off temporarily to avoid any confrontation with the Maoists.
However Chief Minister Raman Singh seems in no mood to negotiate until Mr Menon is released. "The collector will have to be released. Government is willing to speak to the Maoists about their demands only after he is released," he said.
The Maoists have demanded the withdrawal of paramilitary forces from Bastar, the release of eight prisoners and a halt to Operation Green Hunt at large, in return for freeing the 32-year-old Collector.
The Home Ministry's immediate concern is to try and chalk out how to deal immediately with the hostage crisis. The Chhattisgarh government has set up a five-member team to negotiate with the Maoists who have kidnapped Mr Menon; Chief Minister Raman Singh heads the team, which includes consist Home Minister Nankiram Kunvar, PWD Minister Brij Mohan Agarwal, Rural Development Minister Ram Vichar and another minister Kedar Kashyap.
"The Chief Minister held a meeting with the Ministers of the State regarding the kidnapping of the Collector. In the meeting they have analysed the entire situation. The government is very sincerely and seriously thinking about how to get him back and the Opposition has also been asked to give their feedback. The government is trying to get him released as soon as possible," Mr Agarwal said.
The meeting was called after the Maoists yesterday released a list of demands for the Collector's release and set a deadline of April 25 for complying with those conditions.
The Left ultras had kidnapped Alex Paul Menon in a remote village on Saturday where he was attending the Gram Suraj Abhiyaan - a state government-run programme meant to promote greater coordination and connect between the villagers and administration. They also killed two of his security personnel when they resisted his abduction.
His wife, who had already appealed to the Maoists for releasing him on health grounds, said yesterday, "Maoists have given their demands...we have to be courageous, patient...concerned people are in a meeting, deciding Maoists' request." But Asha Alex, who is expecting the couple's first child, said that she had no news about the safety of her husband who is asthmatic. The Chhattisgarh Police had, earlier in the day, claimed to have received information that he is safe. "We don't know about my husband's health, it would be a relief if we heard from him. We request the government and Naxals to understand about the health of the Collector...he has worked for the good of the people," Mrs Alex said.
The police, who launched an intensive search operation for the Collector, had also claimed to have received some vital clues in connection with his abduction, the details of which they refused to divulge. Additional Director General of Police (anti-Naxal operations) Ram Nivas said that officials who had taken part in the government outreach programme at the Majhipara village were quizzed.
Meanwhile, sources told NDTV that the Collector had ignored repeated warnings by the police that he could be kidnapped. Mr Menon was told to take proper precautions and avoid moving around without adequate security as there were clear indications that he could be abducted, sources said. Despite the warnings, he decided to go ahead with his meeting with a group of villagers for the Gram Suraj Abhiyaan without informing the local police, sources added.
The Collector's family had said on Saturday that he was aware of the threat of a possible kidnapping of officials in the region. But it never deterred him from responding to the call of duty.
The kidnapping took place at around 4-4:30 pm when Mr Menon was talking to the villagers. Suddenly, one of his security officers standing behind him was shot dead. The other security guard, who was in front of Mr Menon, tried to fight back but was gunned down. During this period, 30-odd Maoists appeared on the scene. "After firing, sir (Collector) was waiting and then sat in the car. I told him there is no gunman. We were waiting for his gunman but suddenly, a few armed men came in front of the car and I had to stop. They asked 'who is the Collector?' Sir said 'I am the Collector'. They took him away," said Mr Menon's driver. Meanwhile, another group of motorcycle-borne Maoists arrived at the spot and whisked away the 32-year-old Collector. Most of the Maoists, who were involved in the kidnapping - directly or indirectly - belonged to the women cadre.
Meanwhile, the two security guards who were shot dead by the Maoists were accorded a guard of honour at the Sukma district headquarters yesterday.
Angry villagers responded to the Collector's abduction by calling for a bandh in Sukma on Sunday. The bandh affected public transport in the district with most vehicles remaining off the roads. Shops too remained closed in the area.
The public sentiment is reflective of the Collector's popularity and goodwill given the fact that he was actively involved in the village programme and has a reputation of being a dynamic officer. The village from where he was abducted is situated between Gadiras and Keralapal, areas that lie in the Sukma district which is also another known Maoist stronghold. But the state government's initiative, that involves the administration reaching out to villages in Naxal-affected areas to bring them back into the mainstream and foster development, was clearly showing results that had reportedly upset the Maoists. Significantly, the brazen attack by the Maoists precedes the Left ultras targeting senior officials from the neighbouring district of Bijapur on Friday while they were returning after visiting a remote village in connection with the Gram Suraj Abhiyaan. The Collector of Bijapur and the local MLA escaped the landmine blast triggered by the rebels but three people in another car in the convoy were killed.
The Maoists had, last month, abducted two Italian nationals in Odisha and an MLA soon after. While the Italians were released, the MLA, Jhina Hikaka, continues to be held hostage. Interestingly, the location from where the Collector has been kidnapped is around 200 kilometres away from the Koraput district in Odisha where Mr Hikaka is being held.
Sources in the Home Ministry have told NDTV that the sudden rise in abductions is a result of a lot of pressure that the Naxals are finding themselves in. Not only are they worried about their senior cadres having either been killed or arrested, but also because of the operations launched by the special forces. The Maoists want their cadres to be released and these operations to be halted.