Page last updated at 05:52 GMT, Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Maoist rebels set precondition for talks

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

Maoist rebels in Chhattisgarh
There has been a surge in Maoist violence in recent months

A leader of India's Maoist rebels has said they are ready to begin talks with the government if some of their top leaders are released from custody.

Koteswara Rao said that at least four senior rebel leaders who are in prison should be released for talks to begin.

He was reacting to federal home minister P Chidambaram's offer to rebels of "once last chance" to open talks with the government.

The rebels are fighting for communist rule in many Indian states.

More than 6,000 people have died during the rebels' 20-year fight.

Last November, Mr Rao had said that the rebels were willing to talk to the government if it put off a planned offensive against them.

Now Mr Rao has told the BBC that the four arrested rebel leaders would have to be released so that they could participate in any talks with the government.

The four leaders are Kobad Gandhy, Amitabha Bagchi, Narayan Sanyal and Sushil Roy.

'Brutal campaign'

"These four leaders will be part of our delegation that will talk to the government of India.

"And [the offensive] which is causing huge misery for the poor and the tribals in several Indian states must stop. You can't talk to us by holding a gun to our head," Mr Rao said.

"We want to come to the table to save the people from this brutal military campaign."

On Tuesday, Mr Chidambaram offered the Maoists "one last chance" to open talks with the government after finalising a plan to intensify the offensive against the rebels.

"We only want the Maoists to stop violence. We can then talk," he said.

"If the violence does not stop, we will be obliged to continue the operations in a measured, calibrated manner."

Nearly 50,000 federal paramilitary troops are joining an equal number of policemen, to be equipped with helicopters and unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles, to take on the rebels, officials say.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the Maoists as the "country's biggest internal security challenge".

Nearly 600 civilians died in Maoist violence last year, the government says.

A total of 317 members of the security forces and 217 rebels died in Maoist-related violence in 2009, the authorities say.

The rebels have a presence in more than 223 of India's 600-odd districts across 20 states, according to the government.

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