NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Security forces likely killed top Maoist military commander Koteshwar Rao in a West Bengal jungle on Thursday, the government said, striking a major blow to fighters who control large, impoverished but mineral-rich swathes of the country.
The government describes the guerrilla movement as India's biggest internal security threat.
Rao, known as Kishenji, was held responsible for the death of dozens of police. The interior ministry confirmed a man was killed in a fire-fight during an operation to capture the leader.
"Officers on the spot said it was Maoist leader Kishenji ... 99 percent sure it was Kishenji," Home Secretary RK Singh told the PTI news agency.
The rebel, who evaded capture during three decades of fighting to overthrow the state, often appeared with his back to the camera in news reports, his head covered by a scarf and a rifle slung over one shoulder.
The Maoists say they are fighting for the rights of poor peasants and landless labourers, and blame the federal government for doing little for the welfare of poor tribal people.
The rebels feed off the resentment of millions of poor people who have not shared the benefits of the boom in India's economy, which grew 8.5 percent last year.
They control a narrow forested, mineral-rich belt stretching over 22 of India's 28 states. But their influence remains largely restricted to the countryside and small towns.
(Reporting By Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Sophie Hares)