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India's Maoists offer ceasefire ahead of possible talks

Troops haunting for Maoist rebels
The government has begun a major offensive against the rebels

A senior Maoist rebel leader in India has offered a ceasefire ahead of possible talks with the government.

Koteswara Rao - also known as Kishenji - told the BBC that the truce, apparently without conditions, could start later this week.

The government, which recently launched a major offensive against the rebels, has yet to respond to the offer.

The rebels want communist rule in a large swathe of India. More than 6,000 people have died in the 20-year fight.

Koteswara Rao offered a 72-day ceasefire across central and western India between 25 February and 7 May.

"First let us have a ceasefire and stop killing each other. Then we will see whether we can talk meaningfully," he told the BBC.

The offer came in response to Home Minister P Chidambaram's recent statement that the Maoists had to give up violence in order to hold talks with the government.

"They don't have to surrender weapons or disband their army. They just have to stop the violence for negotiations to happen," Mr Chidambaram said.

The BBC's Subir Bhaumik in Calcutta reports that the home minister is believed to be using a cabinet colleague for secret talks with the Maoists.

According to senior home ministry officials, Railway Minister Mamata Banerji, who hails from West Bengal and who has always advocated negotiations rather than military action against the Maoists, is conducting the talks, our correspondent says.

'Last chance'

Two weeks ago, Koteswara Rao offered to hold talks - but only if four senior rebel leaders were freed from custody and a security offensive against them halted.

Maoist rebels in Chhattisgarh
The Maoists have fought for a communist state for 20 years

Our correspondent says the climbdown points to a division in rebel ranks over holding talks with the government.

Koteswara Rao has been under pressure from other senior rebels to open talks with the government, our correspondent says. The rebels also fear continuing violence may lead to them losing support.

At the same time, some analysts say the rebels may have offered the ceasefire to regroup and consolidate their defences in the middle of the security offensive.

Mr Chidambaram says the Maoists have "one last chance" to hold talks with the government or the security forces will step up the offensive against them.

Nearly 50,000 federal paramilitary troops and an equal number of policemen, equipped with helicopters and unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles, are taking part in the assault 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. More than 300 security personnel and 200 rebels were also killed.

The rebels have a presence in more than a third of India's 600 districts and are in effective control of a so-called "red corridor" across the centre of the country.

They say they are fighting for the rights of the rural poor who complain they have been neglected by successive governments for decades.



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FROM OTHER NEWS SITES
The Scotsman Cautious welcome to ceasefire offer - 6 hrs ago
Washington PostMaoist rebel offers cease-fire, talks with India - 13 hrs ago
Financial TimesMaoist guerillas offer India talks - 14 hrs ago
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