Bengal CM defends prisoner swap deal with Maoists

NEW DELHI:The chief minister of an eastern

Indian state blighted by Maoist-linked violence today defended

his decision to swap jailed tribal women for a police officer kidnapped by the rebels.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, chief minister of Marxist-ruled West

Bengal, described the decision to

accede to the rebels’ demand

and free the women as “an exception and not part of our overall policy

of getting rid of Maoists.” “We

will carry on with our mission of countering the rebels,” Bhattacharjee, told reporters in the Indian capital after a meeting with Home Minister P Chidambaram.

“There is no illusion about it (our mission) because Maoists are engaged in murders, looting, extortion and all kinds of criminal activities,” Bhattacharjee said. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the rebels as the single greatest threat to India’s internal security.

The officer was snatched on Tuesday from a West Bengal police station during an attack by the rebels. Two police officers were killed.

His release on Friday follows the beheading earlier this month of an abducted intelligence officer in Jharkhand, which is a hotbed of Maoist activity.

On Thursday, a Maoist leader known only as Kishanji told Bengali TV channel that the officer would be kept hostage until the women imprisoned on charges of sedition were set free. Bhattacharjee dismissed media suggestions that the swap was a surrender to the Maoists who have threatened to unleash a “tornado” of violence if New Delhi goes ahead with a planned large-scale offensive against them. The women “would have been released on bail in any case within ten to 15 days or a month. That is not a surrender.”

He said Maoist violence has already claimed over 600 lives this year with the rebels staging a series of raids despite some successes by security forces in arresting or killing a number of senior members.

The rebels say they fight for the rights of the rural poor but officials accuse them of using intimidation and extortion to collect money and to control impoverished villagers.