Maoist rebels offer to cease attacks

Indian group says it will lay down its arms for 72 hours if government calls off its offensive.

NEW DELHI // Indian Maoists have offered a 72-day ceasefire if New Delhi calls off an offensive against them, media reports said yesterday, but the government said it would wait for a formal offer before it responded. The rebels' military commander, Koteshwar Rao, also known as Kishenji, made the offer through a statement to Indian TV and newspaper offices late on Monday, saying the ceasefire could hold from February 25 to May 7.

"Our revolutionary violence will stay on hold for as long as state terror is put on hold," Kishenji said in a statement to NDTV in the eastern state of Orissa. If the government puts "violence on hold, not for 72 hours but for 72 days, then we will immediately stop our revolutionary violence", he said. Kishenji also called for "liberal intellectuals and human rights groups" to mediate in talks between the rebels and the government.

But the government said "in the absence of an authentic statement" it was unable to respond immediately, raising doubts that the Maoist truce offer would pave the way for peace talks to end decades of insurgency. The home minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, said in a statement that talks could be possible if the Communist Party of India (Maoist) gave up violence, a demand the rebels have so far refused.

"I would like no ifs, no buts and no conditions," Mr Chidambaram said. "Once I receive the [truce offer] statement, I shall consult the prime minister- and respond promptly." The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party welcomed the possibility but its spokesman, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, said the Maoists "must shun violence and surrender their arms" before talks can go ahead. A senior member of the ruling Congress Party, who is in charge of Maoist affairs in the rebel-hit states of Jharkhand and West Bengal, said the talks could resolve an issue that has bedevilled successive governments for decades. "It is a welcome step and there should be talks with Maoists," K Keshava Rao told reporters. "Just condemning the extremists would not do good as for the last 40 years we are condemning them."

The Maoists, described by Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, as the country's biggest internal security threat, regularly ambush police and attack railway lines and factories with the aim of crippling economic activity. Some local governments in central and eastern India are unable to function because of rebel attacks. The rebels carried out more than 1,000 attacks last year in the countryside and some bigger rural towns, killing more than 600 people and disrupting movement of coal and bauxite in mineral-rich eastern and central India.

The Maoist truce offer comes one week after the rebels killed 35 people in back-to-back attacks in two eastern states, including a daylight attack in which rebels killed 24 police in a security camp in West Bengal. That attack raised a storm of criticism over India's ability to tackle the threat. The second attack was conducted by another group of suspected rebels in eastern India in an apparent act of revenge after several guerrillas were captured and turned over to police.

The rebels, whose numbers are believed to be between 22,000 and 25,000, have also been under pressure from a massive, co-ordinated government security offensive, called "Operation Green Hunt", and many believe the truce offer is a ruse to regroup. Some analysts also point out that the truce offer covers the months when trees shed their leaves, making it difficult for the rebels to move around their jungle hideouts. "We are for the first time carrying out a co-ordinated movement against them. Yes, they might have had some success through their hit-and-run tactics, but the heat is on them," a senior internal security official said on Monday.

Inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, the rebels have fought for more than four decades, demanding land and jobs for farmers and the poor. The Maoists blame the federal government for doing little for the welfare of poor tribals. The rebels feed off the resentment of millions of poor people who have not shared the benefits of the boom in India's economy, which, after the global slowdown, looks set to climb back to more than eight-per-cent growth in the next fiscal year.

They control a narrow corridor of forested, mineral-rich belt stretching over 22 of India's 28 states. * Reuters, with additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse