NEW DELHI // Maoist rebels in India have suffered a blow following the murder of one their top leaders in the forests of West Bengal.
Mallojula Koteshwara Rao, alias Kishenji, was number three in the outlawed Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-M), and had spent more than 30 years underground.
He was shot dead by a team of police and paramilitaries near the border with Jharkhand on Thursday.
Police sources said a gun battle raged for about 30 minutes before a body was discovered, which they were "99 per cent sure" was the Maoist leader.
His trademark AK-56 rifle and a hearing aid were lying nearby. Police were searching yesterday for three rebels who escaped.
The Maoists, or Naxalites as they are often known after the town of Naxalbari in West Bengal in which the movement began in the 1960s, seek the overthrow of the state and are considered the most serious internal threat to the government.
They hold a powerful presence across vast swathes of forest and jungle in central and eastern India, particularly among the marginalised tribal population.
"It's a very big blow for the Maoists," said Rahul Pandita, the author of a book on the rebels. "It will be very difficult to replace someone like him."
Kishenji, who was in his late 50s, was 14 when he first became involved with left-wing rebels in the state of Andhra Pradesh, one of the main centres of Communist uprisings in the late 1960s and 1970s.
A keen military strategist and expert marksman, he was among the first to be trained by Tamil Tiger militants from Sri Lanka, who ran training courses for the Naxalites during the 1980s.
"His entire demeanour was that of a university professor," said Mr Pandita. "But when he spoke on his favourite subject of revolution, you could see he was a firebrand leader and extremely committed."
In 1980, Kishenji cofounded the People's War group, which went on to merge with other Naxalite organisations in 2004 to form the CPI-M.
The merger sparked a new surge in the movement, which had been dying out in recent years.
It took on a more military approach with increasing emphasis on sophisticated weapons, including improvised explosive devices, that have made it difficult for police to penetrate their strongholds.
Attacks have risen markedly, with 1,180 deaths linked to the Maoist insurgency last year, according to the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi.
The rebels use political front organisations to mobilise poor peasants. Kishenji spearheaded one of the most successful examples in 2008, when thousands of tribal people in the Lalgarh region of West Bengal - angered by brutal police tactics - drove the police out of their districts and ran their own government for about seven months, until the police regained control.
Kishenji was unique among his comrades for courting the media, always appearing with his back to the camera and a red-and-white shawl wrapped around his head.
The interviews stopped after he was injured by police in March 2010.
Kishenji's death comes just days after the ruling Trinamul Congress (TMC) party in West Bengal announced the resumption of police operations against the Maoists after a six-month hiatus.
An informal deal with the Maoists had helped propel the TMC to power in state elections in May, but attempts to initiate talks quickly collapsed when the government reneged on its promise to review the cases of Naxalite prisoners.
The killing of two TMC members on November 14 was the last straw.
"It is impossible for talks to happen with the Maoists," said Amar Battarcharya, a former Naxalite who now edits a magazine in Kolkata. "Many in the organisation would see talks as a deviation from their goal of overthrowing the state. It would cause the break-up of the organisation."