One of the two Italians abducted by Maoists, tourist Claudio Colangelo, was on Sunday released unharmed by ultras, 11 days after being taken hostage in Kandhamal district, while his compatriot was still held captive by the rebels.
A visibly relieved 61-year-old Colangelo, who was handed over to a group of media personnel by the Maoists, told reporters," it was frightening".
Colangelo said he has spoken to his wife and his entire family has heaved a sigh of relief over his being freed by the left-wing extremists.
He denied reports that photographs of tribals were being taken by them when the Maoists captured them. "No photographs were being taken."
On reports that police had warned them against entering the jungles, he said on the contrary, "we went in only after police allowed us".
He said the other Italian, 54-year-old Puri-based tour operator Paolo Bosusco, was with him in a Maoist camp this morning. "We have to pray for him and see that he too returns safely," he said.
Colangelo's release was confirmed by Director General of Police Manmohan Praharaj. Kandhamal Superintendent of police J N Pankaj said Colangelo was handed over to journalists in Tanjingia area near Daringbadi town in the tribal-dominated Kandhamal district from where he was taken away on March 14.
He was taken to Sorada in Ganjam district from where the tourist is likely to be brought to Bhubaneswar.
Home Secretary U N Behera said Colangelo called him up and spoke to him soon after being released by the Maoists.
"Colangelo told me that he was set free and that he was in good health and unharmed," Behera said. Bosusco was still being held captive by the Maoists, the home secretary said.
A top leader of the Odisha State Organising Committee of Maoists told a private TV channel that the release was made as a goodwill gesture.
Colangelo said, "They have treated us the best they could. I don't want to get into politics ... I leave it to the professionals."
He said he and Bosusco were bathing in a river when four persons came and seized them. There was, however, no information on tribal BJD MLA Jhina Hikaka who was abducted by armed Maoists near Toyaput in Koraput district in early hours of Saturday at Laxmipur while returning home from Koraput.
Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik hoped that the abductors of the 37-year-old, first time legislator would get in touch soon so that the government could start discussion on his release.
DIG (Southern Range), R K Sharma said, Colangelo was resting as he was tired at Sorada in Ganjam district.
The other Italian still held captive by the abductors was also in good health, he said. Colangelo, said, "It was frightening. Today finally there was a solution. Let us hope Paulo will be released very soon."
The two Italians were taken hostage by the Maoists while trekking in the forest areas in Daringbadi in Kandhamal district.
The release came a day after talks between the Maoist and the Odisha government negotiators to end the hostage crisis were suspended with the Maoist mediators B D Sharma and Dandapani Mohanty quitting after the kidnap of the BJD MLA in Koraput district on Saturday.
Appeals had been made by the chief minister, the Maoist mediators and members of the Odisha assembly for the release of the Italians.
The abductors of the Italians had made 13 demands for their release including release of some rebels like Subhashree Das, wife of top Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda, and halt to anti-Maoist operations by security forces.
The kidnap of the MLA was preceded by the gunning down of a police sub-inspector in Malkangiri on March 22 and the killing of two policemen in a landmine blast in Koraput on
March 18, which police and intelligence sources said pointed to factionalism among the Maoists.
The developments were being interpreted by security agencies as the outcome of factional rivalry between Odisha
State Organising Committee (OSOC) and Andhra Odisha Border Zonal Committee (AOBZC), the two groups of Maoists in Odisha seeking dominance.
A senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity that top Maoist leader, Sabyasachi Panda, who appeared to have been sidelined in the higher hierarchy of rebel leadership, might be behind the abduction of the two Italians in a bid to assert his authority in the region.
In an attempt to counter Panda's move and expose his limited control, the AOBZC probably may have engineered the abduction of the legislator.
The same group, active in undivided Koraput and adjoining areas of Andhra Pradesh, was also believed to be behind the killing of sub-inspector K C Rath at Khairput in Malkangiri district on March 22, he said.
While OSOC has claimed responsibility for the abduction of the two Italians and conveyed their demands through the media, no outfit has so far owned responsibility for the kidnapping of the MLA though it is suspected to have been enacted by AOBZC.