NEW DELHI -- An Italian tour guide was freed Thursday by Maoists after nearly a month in captivity, somewhat thinner and worn down by malaria, in return for the release of five jailed members of the rebel group.
The insurgent group, which has sought an independent state since its founding in 1967, has rarely targeted foreigners.
Paolo Bosusco, 54, thanked Indian and Italian officials for securing his release, adding that after 22 years in India organizing trips for foreigners, he was calling it quits.
"I am very sorry that time has come to leave India," he said, adding that he wasn’t sure he would return. "My work is finished."
Video footage and photographs showed him in a fresh white shirt, drawn face and scraggly shoulder-length hair flanked by the Italian ambassador and two policemen soon after he was freed about 5 a.m.
Bosusco referred to being on a "paid holiday" when Italian news program TG1 asked him why he looked so thin. "The Maoists tried to give me what they could, but unfortunately given the conditions in the jungle, I could not eat very much," he said. "I also had malaria twice."
Bosusco was hiking in the jungles of the eastern state of Odisha on March 14 with an Italian friend when he was captured. Maoists later claimed he was seized in part for taking photographs of area tribesmen, a contention he denied Thursday. His Italian friend was released late last month, but a local assemblyman kidnapped in the same area, apparently by a different faction, remains in captivity.
Bosusco’s release came after the state government agreed to free Subhashree Panda, the wife of a local Maoist leader, and four other cadres imprisoned on various charges. The Maoists had originally demanded the release of seven prisoners.
“I told them that the Italian is our guest and he should not be held hostage for a very long period,” mediator Dandapani Mohanty told local reporters.
B.K. Panwar, head of the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare Training College in eastern Chhattisgarh state, said foreign tourists have traveled to remote tribal areas for years without a problem. But he said the militant group’s focus remained the capture and killing of Indian security forces. The willingness of the Odisha government to meet Maoists' demands would only encourage the fighters to strike again, he added.
The Maoists, with about 20,000 armed and 50,000 unarmed members, have a significant presence in a third of India's 28 states. Government figures indicate that more than 10,000 people were killed in Maoist-related violence from 2005 to mid-2010.
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: Italian tour guide Paolo Bosusco, abducted by Maoist rebels nearly a month ago, greets the media outside a state guest house in the eastern Indian state of Odisha after being released Thursday. Credit: Associated Press