The Maoists suffered their biggest blow yet on Friday when their politburo member Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad was gunned down by the police in the forests of Adilabad in Andhra Pradesh.
This is the first time a politburo member has died in an encounter.
"The police were conducting searches in Adilabad district near Jogapur (310 km north of Hyderabad) following intelligence inputs that Maoists planned to enter the state from Maharashtra. In the exchange that followed, two Maoists were killed.
One was identified as Cherukuri Rajkumar but the other's identity is yet to be established," Adilabad SP P. Pramod Kumar said.
The killing prompted Maoist sympathiser Varavara Rao to file a petition in the high court, demanding a case of murder against the police. He alleged Azad was picked up in Nagpur, taken to the jungles and killed.
But Nagpur commissioner Pravin Dixit said: "The police were not associated with it."
Azad was a member of the CPI (Maoist)'s central committee too.
His death brings the politburo strength to seven from 13.
Azad is also the third leading Maoist leader to be felled by Andhra police in the past year. Patel Sudhakar Reddy, military strategist, and Shakamuri Apparao, state committee member, were also killed.
(Inputs from Nagpur, Kolkata)