RAIPUR - Maoist rebels have kidnapped two Italian tourists in poverty-hit eastern India, police said Sunday, in what was believed to be the first abduction of foreigners by the left-wing militants.

Television reports said the kidnappers issued 13 demands for the release of the Italians, including asking police to release an unspecified number of prisoners and end their drive to root out Maoists from the region. The abduction occurred Wednesday in the scenic Kandhamal district in central Orissa, police said, one of a string of states where armed Maoist rebels have been waging a decades-long battle to overthrow govt authorities. “Maoists have abducted two Italian nationals from Daringbadi area of Kandhamal district,” regional police deputy inspector general Radha Krishna Sharma told AFP.

The Italian foreign office in Rome identified the kidnap victims as Paolo Bosusco and Claudio Colangelo.

Bosusco had been living in the city of Puri in Orissa for a decade and was running an adventure tourism company, police said.

Sharma said the men asked police Monday to be allowed to travel around Kandhamal, but authorities denied permission, citing risks of Maoist violence.

“After that the two men and their Indian assistants were found roaming in these areas and on Wednesday, while they were taking a bath near a coffee plantation, Maoists abducted them,” Sharma said.

Sharma said the militants freed the Indian hostages on Sunday morning unconditionally.

“This is the first time any foreigner has been kidnapped by Maoists. We appeal to them to release the men on humanitarian grounds,” he said.

An Italian foreign ministry spokesman said authorities had “immediately activated a crisis unit” which was in contact with its consulate in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata.

The consulate “is working with local police on the ground. The men’s families have been informed,” the spokesman said.

According to Italian media reports, Bosusco, 54, is originally from Turin, while Colangelo, 61, is from Rome.

In the past, the ultra-leftist guerrillas only kidnapped local officials and villagers, freeing some after negotiations with authorities, experts said. Other people kidnapped by the Maoists have been found dead.

Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi agreed this was the first time the rebels had kidnapped foreigners.

“It is not clear yet if this is a rogue operation by a maverick leader or if it is a strategic move by the central Maoist authority,” Sahni told AFP.

“Maoists have suffered tremendous attrition of leadership in recent years, so this presents an opportunity to get some of their leaders out of jail,” he added.

Indian police official Sharma confirmed the rebels had issued demands for the Italians’ release but did not disclose their contents.

Police were searching to locate the hostages, he said.

The Indian government has described the Maoist movement, which often targets police and soldiers with deadly roadside mine ambushes, as the country’s biggest internal security threat.

In 2010, the Maoists blew up an Indian train, killing at least 80 people.

The insurgency, which began in 1967, feeds off land disputes, police brutality and corruption, and is strongest in the poorest and most deprived areas of India, many of which are rich in natural resources.

The rebels say they are fighting for the rights of neglected tribal people and landless farmers and their ultimate goal is to capture India’s cities and overthrow parliament.