CALCUTTA | The guerrilla leader of India's Maoist rebels was killed Thursday in a gunbattle with police in the forests of West Bengal state, a senior government official said.
"Top Maoist leader Koteshwar Rao, alias Kishenji, is dead," the official told The Washington Times.
The death of the 53-year-old rebel leader comes weeks after peace talks between the government and the Maoists had foundered.
According to officials and media reports, police began a manhunt late Wednesday after receiving intelligence reports that Kishenji was hiding in the Kushboni forest in the West Midnapore district of West Bengal state, about 93 miles west of Calcutta.
A gunfight erupted between police and rebels late Thursday.
"It is 99 percent the rebel leader Kishenji. It is a big blow to the Maoists," Indian Home Secretary, R.K. Singh said in New Delhi, confirming reports of the Maoist leader's death to journalists.
West Bengal Director General of Police Naparajit Mukherjee said that an AK 47 assault rifle found with the body was probably used by Kishenji. Five other rebels were arrested after the gunbattle, police said.
Police are still searching for Suchitra Mahato, a female Maoist leader who had been accompanying Kishenji.
A cease-fire between the Maoists and the West Bengal government collapsed earlier this month.
Security analysts said Kishenji's death is unlikely to end the rebels' movement but marks a significant achievement by government forces.
Kishenji was a top Politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and the group's military leader. He had claimed responsibility for the Silda camp attack in 2010 in West Bengal in which 24 paramilitary troops were killed.
Earlier this month, the Maoists in eastern India ended a month-long truce with the government by killing two ruling party supporters.
Peace talks with the Maoists began after a new government headed by the regional Trinamool Congress party took over in West Bengal under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee several weeks ago.
The rebels agreed to a cease-fire with the authorities in the eastern region, where the Maoists dominate vast swaths of forests.
But the talks soon broke down and the rebels resumed their violence, despite efforts by the state to broker common ground. Some Maoists recently had surrendered.
The Maoists, who have vowed to overthrow India's government, periodically launch attacks on policemen and mainstream political party supporters across the South Asian country's central and eastern regions.
Unrelenting poverty in rural areas, especially those inhibited by the tribal people in forest regions, has helped nourish the Maoists, who live in the jungles and are heavily armed.
The Maoist movement in India began in the late 1960s. It subsided in the early 1970s only to resurface as a more violent force that now operates under the banner of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls the Maoists the biggest internal threat to the country.