India alert as Maoist Koteshwar ‘Kishenji’ Rao ‘killed’

The Indian state of West Bengal is on high alert amid fears of revenge attacks after police said they had shot dead top Maoist rebel Koteshwar Rao.

Police say they are now certain the man killed in Thursday’s clash is Mr Rao, who is also known as “Kishenji”.

Maoist rebels have called for a two-day protest, saying he was murdered in an orchestrated or “fake encounter”.

Mr Rao was one of the rebels’ most senior leaders and analysts say his death will be a major setback.

The authorities are yet to make a formal announcement as the rebel leader’s family is on the way to Calcutta to identify the body.

But authorities told the BBC’s Amitabha Bhattasali in Calcutta that “we hardly need any more confirmation”.

‘In cold blood’

A picture of a body said to be that of Mr Rao’s was released by the Reuters news agency but the face is not visible. However, several reporters who had regular contact with him were shown the corpse and confirmed that it was indeed that of the rebel leader.

The body has now been taken for a post-mortem.

West Bengal’s Maoist chief Akash said that “Kishenji was murdered in cold blood” and several human rights organisations have also demanded a formal inquiry into the incident.

Police maintain that Mr Rao was killed after a gun battle between rebels and paramilitary forces in the Burishol forest in the Jamboni area of the state’s restive West Midnapur district.

“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.

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.

‘Maoist revolution’

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.

A government offensive against the rebels – widely referred to as Operation Green Hunt – began in late 2009. That year the top Maoist leader and ideologue Kobad Ghandy was also arrested in Delhi.

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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