Bhubaneshwar/New Delhi: India on Wednesday stepped up efforts to secure the freedom of two Italians seized by Maoists even as differences persisted over the choice of mediators between the guerrillas and the Odisha government.

Talks with the Maoists are likely to be delayed further as it was not clear who would represent the Maoists, officials tracking the developments said.

Bosusco Paolo and Claudio Colangelo were abducted by Maoists March 14 from Kandhamal district. The Odisha government and the rebels have both said the hostages were safe and in good health.

In New Delhi, the government struck a hopeful note.

"We are in touch with the state government. The external affairs minister (SM Krishna) has spoken to (Odisha) Chief Minister and requested for the safe release of hostages," Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said here.

"We are making all necessary efforts to ensure the safe release of abducted Italians. India is hoping there will be a positive outcome," said Mathai.

There has been almost no progress in the resolution of the week-old hostage crisis though a rebel leader said they were ready to release one Italians if two of the rebels were accepted.

The caller, claiming to be Sunil, known as rebel leader Sabyasaachi Panda, called for the release of five Maoists, including his wife Subhashree Panda, in exchange for an Italian.

In a telephonic message to select journalists in Bhubaneshwar, he also demanded action against security personnel responsible for alleged staged shootouts and rapes.

"Unless the rebels make it clear who will represent them, it is very difficult to start talks," a senior official in the home department said. The government has not responded to the Maoist swap offer.

The abductors have come up with 13 demands.

The rebels late Tuesday extended the deadline for the government to accept the demands by Wednesday evening. But the process suffered repeated setbacks over the choice of interlocutors.

The Maoists on late Monday announced three names - senior rebel leader Narayan Sanyal, social activist Dandapani Mohanty and rights activist and lawyer Biswapriya Kanungo -- to mediate on their behalf.

While Kanungo immediately said no, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik refused to accept Sanyal as he had been convicted for life in a criminal case.

Patnaik asked the rebels to suggest alternatives.

The Maoists then announced that human rights activist Prafulla Samontra and tribal expert B.D. Sharma. But Samontra refused to participate, saying he had no faith in the government.

Samontra, who has been agitating against displacements by industrial projects, said the government did not trust him or his movement. "There is no meaning talking with the government," he said.

The government said three senior officials - PK Jena, Santosh Sarangi and UN Behera - will represent it in the negotiation process.

Home Minister P Chidambaram Wednesday rejected Naveen Patnaik's charges that the central government was not helping his state to resolve the Italian crisis.

He said Home Secretary R.K. Singh had spoken to the Orissa chief secretary (Tarun Kanti Mishra) twice and to state police Chief Manmohan Praharaj.

"No specific request has been made (by Odisha). I don't think the chief minister should be making these statements," he added.

(Agencies)