The prospects for the release of the abducted Sukma Collector Alex Paul Menon brightened on Monday night, when the Chhattisgarh government and interlocutors for the Maoists hammered out an agreement to constitute a high-power official committee to examine the cases of all prisoners (with a focus on tribals) in the State and to expedite their release.

Appealing for the release of the Collector at a press conference in Raipur, the interlocutors said the committee would become operational within an hour of Mr. Menon being freed.

The panel will be headed by retired IAS officer Nirmala Buch and the members will be Chief Secretary Sunil Kumar, Home Secretary N.K. Aswal, and DG Anil M. Navaney.

To a question whether the agreement would be binding on the Maoists, interlocutor B.D. Sharma hoped the extremists would honour it as he and G. Haragopal were chosen by them.

Later at a press conference, Chief Minister Raman Singh said the committee would begin its task as soon as the Collector was released.

Earlier, the Maoists threatened to “try” the Collector in a “people’s court,” if the government did not concede their demand for release of eight jailed comrades by Wednesday.

Throughout the day, it was a nerve-wracking experience for the interlocutors, Mr. Sharma and Prof. Haragopal (nominated by Maoists) and Nirmala Buch and S.K. Mishra, as they busied themselves

with negotiations. A Cabinet sub-committee also met.

‘Very, very hopeful’

But government spokesperson N. Baijender Kumar was “very, very hopeful of a positive outcome.” “We have to wait. Perhaps, there could be some development soon,” he said on the phone from Raipur.

The situation in the State capital turned tense in the afternoon, as security forces and Maoists were involved in a brief gunfight in Bijapur district, in the strife-torn Bastar forests. There was no casualty, senior officers said later.

The extremists had killed a tribal at Kutru on Sunday night.

“The forces went there to enquire about the murder, and nothing much should be read into it,” a senior officer said.