India probes reports top Maoist Koteshwar Rao shot dead

Kishenji pictures
Image caption Mr Rao was one of the rebels' most senior leaders

Police in the Indian state of West Bengal are investigating reports that senior Maoist military leader Koteshwar Rao has been killed.

They say they are "99% sure" Mr Rao, otherwise known as Kishenji, was killed in a clash with paramilitary forces.

Police are awaiting formal identification of the body before officially pronouncing him dead.

Officials say Mr Rao was one of the rebels' most senior leaders - his death would be a major setback for them.

Home Secretary RK Singh said Mr Rao's reported death was a "huge setback for the Maoists as he was number three in the hierarchy".

The rebels have not commented on the reports, but pro-Maoist intellectuals have demanded that if he is dead, his body should be returned to his home town in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

The reported death of Mr Rao follows the capture in 2009 of Kobad Ghandy, a top Maoist leader and ideologue, in Delhi.

Search for aide

The BBC's Amitabha Bhattasali in Calcutta says that photographs of the body have been sent to Maoist prisoners in jail in the city so that they can formally identify him.

Our correspondent says his 85-year-old mother is also going to Calcutta to identify the body.

Police told the BBC that he was reportedly killed in forests in the Jamboni area of West Midnapur district during an anti-Maoist operation by the security forces.

"We had been continuously tracking him for last two days. Finally we got him at Burishol forest," an officer involved in the operation said.

He said that about 900 paramilitary troops and state policemen took part in the operation - including elite Cobra commandos who are specially trained to fight Maoist rebels.

Police said that Mr Rao's body had been found with an AK-47 lying beside him. They also said that they had found a hearing aid nearby. It is well known that Mr Rao had trouble with his hearing.

Three other accomplices of Mr Rao were also killed, reports said.

A big gun battle is reported to be taking place in the area where Mr Rao was believed to have been killed, police say, and a search is under way for several Maoists on the run including Mr Rao's aide, Suchitra Mahato.

Human rights groups have called for a public inquiry to prove that Mr Rao was not killed by police in a "fake" or orchestrated encounter.

Reports of Mr Rao's death come amid intensified anti-Maoist operations in West Bengal despite the fact that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has publicly advocated a negotiated solution through dialogue with the rebels.

Mr Rao reportedly suffered a temporary paralysis in June 2010 when a police bullet hit him in the knee.

Normally a regular communicator with the press, little was heard of him from then until January 2011 when he issued a statement saying he expected India to succumb to a Maoist revolution by 2025.

Latest estimates suggest he commanded at least 20,000 armed fighters. They are said to get most of their weapons by raiding police bases.

The rebels have a strong presence in more than a third of India's 600 districts, and have been described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the country's biggest security threat.

The Maoists are fighting for the introduction of a communist state and for what they say is a more egalitarian society.

More than 6,000 people have died in the insurgency, which began in West Bengal in the late 1960s.

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