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Southern Indian State Begins Peace Talks with Maoist Rebels - 2004-10-15

The government of India's Andhra Pradesh state has begun the first-ever talks with the Maoist rebel group that has been active in the state for decades. Governments in other states where Maoist insurgents are also active will be watching the talks with interest.

An 11-member delegation of the People's War Group emerged from remote jungle hideouts Friday to join closed-door talks with a government team in Andhra Pradesh's capital of Hyderabad.

It is the first-ever dialogue between the government and Maoist rebels, who want to establish a communist state in Andhra Pradesh and surrounding areas. From bases in the state's impoverished rural districts, the rebels have led attacks targeting security forces, government property and rich landlords for more than three decades. At least six-thousand people have been killed in the struggle.

But violence ended in June, when the rebels entered a cease-fire with a left-leaning Congress Party government, which pushed for peace talks after taking power in the state earlier in the year.

Independent political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan says both sides are testing the waters at the initial round of talks. "Negotiations are at a very early stage, and it is hazardous to predict an outcome," he said, "but the fact that the talks are taking place is itself very significant."

The rebels say they are fighting for social justice, and their key demand is distribution of land to the rural poor.

The government says the talks will help usher in a peaceful environment, and enable it to speed up rural development.

Andhra Pradesh, in the south of the country, is one of India's poorest states, although Hyderabad is a gleaming information technology hub. The previous government was blamed for not paying enough attention to the plight of the rural poor.

Analysts like Mr. Rangarajan hope the talks in Andhra Pradesh will encourage peace talks with more than half a dozen smaller armed leftist groups that operate in at least six other states. "The other states will watch whether the Maoist groups will respect the cease-fire, whether they appear to be serious about the negotiations, or whether they are simply trying to win tactical breathing space," he noted.

Both sides have expressed optimism about the talks, which are expected to continue for several days.