Maoists on Monday unconditionally released the three abducted Bihar policemen in Lakhisarai district, bringing an end to the nine-day-old hostage crisis.
Sub-inspectors Abhay Prasad Yadav and Rupesh Kumar Sinha, and Bihar Military Police haviladar Ehshan Khan were set free near Simra Rari, 165 km from Patna, on the border of Chanan- Kajra forests and hills in Lakhisarai district on Monday morning, the same spot where the bullet-ridden body of the fourth hostage, BMP ASI Lucas Tete, was found on Friday morning.
"All the three kidnapped policemen have been released by the Maoists after the police sealed their escape routes in the forests and hills," Director General of Police Neelmani told PTI.
The three were taken to a police station in Lakhisarai town by Superintendent of Police Ranjit Kumar Mishra, he said, adding the freed policemen later headed for their homes.
The Maoists had initially set a condition that eight ultras -- Jai Paswan, Vijay Chourasia, Prem Bhuiyan, Pramod Barnawal, Ramvilas Tanti, Ramesh Tirkie, Arjun Koda and Rattu Koda, be released from jail in exchange for releasing the three policemen.
Later, they agreed to free them on 'humanitarian grounds'.
Official sources, however, said that Abhay Yadav's uncle, Shambhu Yadav, who was camping in Lakhisarai, was informed by the Maoists on Monday morning that the three policemen would be freed and he would find them in Simra Tari area.
Yadav contacted the local police and then left for Simra Tari. He was followed by the police, the sources said.
The release brought relief for Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who had been under intense pressure due to the hostage crisis and had earlier offered talks with the Maoists and safe passage.
The hope for the release of abducted policemen had been raised on Sunday when a man claiming to be Maoist leader 'Kishanji' met family members of one of the hostages, Abhay Prasad Yadav in Khagaria and assured them that he would be home soon.
But, as the hours rolled by and they did not return, suspense mounted afresh, with the chief minister saying he had no information about the kidnapped policemen.
The hostage crisis began on August 29 when the four policemen were abducted after a fierce encounter with the ultras which left seven policemen dead and ten injured.
Two days later, the Maoists issued an ultimatum to the state government that they would kill the four hostages if it did not release their eight jailed colleagues by 10 am next morning, which was later extended to 4 pm on Thursday.
On Thursday when the deadline passed, Avinash, a self-proclaimed Maoist spokesman informed media offices that sub-inspector Abhay Yadav had been killed.
On Friday, the body of BMP ASI Lucas Tete was found shot in the chest from near Singrishi Dam in Kajra police station area.
This led the chief minister to make an appeal on Saturday for freeing the hostages and offer safe passage to Maoists for talks.
On Saturday night, Avinash surfaced again and claimed that the three surviving policemen would be released at 8 am on Sunday. This, however, did not come about till Monday morning.
Intense search operations had been launched which began in Lakhisarai and was then extended to Munger, Jamui, Banka and Kaimur districts with helicopters in the air scouring the hilly and forested terrain for a sign of the hostages.
A huge contingent of the CRPF, Bihar Military Police, Special Auxiliary Police and Special Task Force of the state police took part in the search operations.
During the course of the operations, seven Maoists, including a self-styled area commander and the mastermind behind the exchange of fire at Lakhisarai, Pintu Das, were arrested.
The release brought back smiles on the faces of the family members of the three policemen.
The mother of SI Rupesh Kumar Sinha had fallen ill from shock and had to be hospitalised soon after the kidnapping.
Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad said, "It seems that the Maoists released the hostages on humanitarian grounds. I don't know what the police and the state government did about it."
Lok Janshakti Party supremo Ramvilas Paswan said, "Nitish Kumar and his government have been a failure in tackling the hostage crisis."
Stating that the release had taken place on humanitarian grounds when the policemen were left at the mercy of the Maoists, Paswan said the government cannot take credit for it.
Official sources said the three policemen were examined by a team of doctors at a police station in Lakhisarai town.
"They are medically fit, hale and hearty," they said. Senior police officials, including IG (operations) K S Dwivedi, met the policemen at the police station and enquired about details of their captivity, they said.