Top Naxal Azad shot dead by Andhra police

In a major setback for Maoist rebels, CPI (Maoist) spokesperson and central committee member Azad Cherukuri Rajkumar was shot dead by Andhra police in an encounter near Sarkapalli village in Adilabad district late last night. He was close to Maoist general secretary Ganapathi and regarded by many as the second-in-command.

Officials said a task force of Adilabad police raided a hideout 15 km from Maharashtra border where a Maoist meeting was on. Police said Azad died in an exchange of fire.

"We raided on a tip-off. About 25 Maoists were present there. The firefight started late in the night and ended at 3 am. Two persons were shot dead by police while the rest escaped. One of the dead has been identified as Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad, the CPI (Maoist) spokesperson. We did not know that he too was at the meeting," said an official of the Special Intelligence Branch (SIB).

"The other person has not been identified so far but is suspected to be Sahadav or Chandrana."

Police also recovered an AK-47, a 9 mm pistol and rucksacks with food. Azad's killing comes two days after Maoists shot dead 27 securitymen in Chhattisgarh.

Writer and Maoist sympathiser Vara Vara Rao filed a petition in the AP High Court, seeking registration of a case of murder against those involved in the alleged encounter, and permission to bring Azad's body to Hyderabad. The court dismissed his petition but allowed another petition by Azad's mother C Karuna to take the body to Mancherial in Adilabad for the last rites.

Vara Vara Rao claimed Azad was in Nagpur on Thursday to meet cadres. "Police picked them up there, brought them to Adilabad district and killed them in a fake encounter after torturing them," he alleged.

Rajkumar who was given the pseudonym Azad the name given to Maoist spokespersons carried a reward of Rs 12 lakh on his head.

Officials said it is common during the rainy season for Maoists to infiltrate into Andhra Pradesh from Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. "It is difficult to patrol the border areas during the rains. They use this opportunity to infiltrate and organise meetings. We believe that this meeting was to discuss the by-elections in Telangana later this month," an official said.

Born in Krishna district, Rajkumar graduated from the Regional Engineering College, Warangal, the fountainhead of Left ideology in Andhra in the 1970s, and joined the Naxalite movement.

An MTech student, he was leader of the Radical Students Union (RSU) for several years besides playing a key role during the Emergency years.

Soon after joining the PWG, on whose behalf he used negotiate arms deals and training in handling of weapons and explosives, Rajkumar went underground. But cases of threat and intimidation apart, he did not have a police record in Andhra Pradesh. After Maoist parties merged to form the CPI (Maoist), he had been handling mostly political affairs of the party.

Rajkumar was underground for 30 years and assumed several aliases including Madhav, Gangadhar, Madhu and Uday.

In March this year, Azad had gone missing for several days, leading to speculation that he was either in the custody of Andhra Pradesh police or had been killed in an encounter.

The day he went missing, two top Maoist leaders were killed in separate encounters Shakamuri Appa Rao in Prakasam district and Solipeta Kondal Reddy in Warangal district.

At that time, police said that while the two leaders were killed in encounters, they had no idea about Azad. A few days later, Azad resurfaced and the CPI (Maoist) said he was fine.

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