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Assassin Greeted Gandhi With a Bomb on Her Back

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rajiv Gandhi’s assassin dressed for her suicide mission in the party colors of her famous target, an orange shirt and green pants. And she carried a floral bouquet as an added prop, insurance that she would get close enough to the target to blow him to bits.

Three sticks of high-powered, nitro-based explosives were strapped to her back, tucked into pockets in a homemade, denim belt fastened around her waist with Velcro strips under her loose-fitting clothing. The explosives were wired to small switches inside the belt. The killer was under 30, stocky, muscular and athletic.

Only one of the handful of security men deployed that night spotted her as she raced from the small, outdoor stage to greet Rajiv Gandhi as he approached local dignitaries just moments after he arrived in the small south Indian town of Sriperumbudur at 10:20 p.m. Tuesday.

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But it was too late.

Within seconds, the human bomb got to within a foot of the smiling Gandhi, faced him, bowed deeply and, as the 46-year-old former prime minister bent down to lift her up in a gesture of respect, there was a blinding flash of light and a deafening explosion, and the last of the Nehru dynasty was dead.

His assassin, her body blown into pieces over a radius of 21 feet, has yet to be identified, and the cause that motivated her remains unknown. But interviews with forensic investigators, eyewitnesses, officials and police make it possible to reconstruct the assassination.

The unanswered question: Why?

The assassin’s head was blown off by the explosion, but her face was left intact. It was photographed extensively, and Indian intelligence agents, along with federal investigators from New Delhi, are checking her features against the files of known extremist groups--particularly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant secessionist army in the nearby island nation of Sri Lanka that is known to have used high-powered bombs and suicide squads to assassinate officials.

Gandhi was killed in Tamil Nadu state, where Sri Lankan insurgents have long used rural compounds as underground training bases and ammunition depots. Just a few months before his death, rebel leaders in northern Sri Lanka, where they have fought since 1983 to create an independent, Tamil-speaking state, boasted about newly formed suicide squads that consisted entirely of women and children.

Gandhi was no friend of the Tamil Tigers, the informal name used for the largest of the many Tamil insurgent groups. As prime minister in July, 1987, Gandhi brokered an agreement with Sri Lankan authorities that sent tens of thousands of Indian troops to the north of the island, where they were soon locked in a prolonged and brutal counterinsurgency campaign against the Tigers.

Since then, he has been near the top of the Tiger’s death list.

“He was a very severe critic of the LTTE,” said Koothapadayachi Rama Murthy, the president of Gandhi’s Congress-I Party in Tamil Nadu and an eyewitness to the assassination Tuesday night. Commenting that the Tamil Tigers “used our state as a launching pad” for their continuing war with the Sri Lankan army, Rama Murthy said the former prime minister had delivered a litany of scathing attacks on the Tamil group in the Indian Parliament.

“I am of a very strong opinion that the LTTE is responsible,” he said. He added that the only other prime terrorist suspects are India’s militant Sikhs, who assassinated Gandhi’s mother, Indira, in 1984 and also targeted her son in a widely circulated “hit list” issued after the ruling Gandhis ordered two successive Indian army assaults on the Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ shrine in Punjab state, to root out insurgents there.

“Either (the Tigers) have been used by the Punjab militants, or they have done it themselves,” Rama Murthy concluded, saying the Sikhs recently began to purchase sophisticated firearms from the Tigers in Tamil Nadu.

India’s Law Minister Subramaniam Swamy also said at a Thursday press conference in New Delhi that evidence gathered so far in the case strongly points to the Tigers but stressed that there is “no conclusive proof of LTTE involvement.”

In several statements from their office in London, the Tigers have denied any involvement in Gandhi’s death.

In an effort to identify the suicide assassin and trace possible links between her and the various known terrorist groups, India’s central government has flooded Tamil Nadu with investigators and agents of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s equivalent of the CIA. Indian intelligence has long monitored the Tigers’ activities in the southern state.

The investigators’ final report may take weeks to complete. What has emerged after two days, however, is, in the words of Dr. Pakkiriswamy Chandrasekharan, “a very, very, very simple case.” As in most suicide attacks, he explained, the killer was not worried about leaving clues behind.

In an interview Thursday with The Times, Chandrasekharan, the veteran director of the Forensics Science Department of the Tamil Nadu state government, said evidence at the scene has disproved initial reports that the assassin had concealed a bomb in a bouquet of flowers or in two flowerpots located near the spot where Gandhi was killed.

Chandrasekharan said that based on the large quantity of evidence recovered at the scene, his investigators have concluded that Gandhi was killed by a woman who wired explosives to a body belt that she wore beneath her clothing.

Among the evidence recovered were pieces of the belt, with wiring, switches and traces of explosive still attached. The belt also bore bits of Velcro, as well as shreds of the same clothing that were found during autopsies on the recovered parts of the woman’s body.

The forensics team found that the back of the woman’s severed head had been blown off, leading them to conclude that she was bowing at the time of the explosion.

The one part of her body that disintegrated in the blast was her torso, which Chandrasekharan said confirmed his theory that the assassin was wearing the explosives around her waist.

“This is not a difficult case to solve,” said the doctor, who has performed hundreds of murder-scene investigations in the 20 years he has headed the forensics department in Madras, the state capital.

The assassin’s identity, however, is another matter, he conceded. Her facial complexion is very dark, he noted. But the forensics chief, who is himself an Indian Tamil, said he gives little credence to local belief in south India that Sri Lankan Tamils are darker than, or in any way physically different from, their ethnic brothers in India.

As for Chandrasekharan’s version of the assassination, eyewitnesses have both confirmed and expanded on it.

Most of the witnesses interviewed have spoken of seeing a young, dark-complexioned woman force her way through the mass of supporters awaiting Gandhi behind a metal barricade that stood a few feet from another enclosure where he was greeting the local dignitaries after his arrival at the rally.

The scene, the witnesses said, was typical of the mass confusion that greeted the former prime minister in the hundreds of villages he visited as he crisscrossed the country during his intensive campaign to bring his party back to power.

Each time, hundreds of women routinely surged toward the handsome leader, shoving garlands and bouquets at Gandhi, who would hold them for a moment and then toss them back into the crowd as a playful blessing. And it was just at that point in the routine in Sriperumbudur on Tuesday that the suicide bomb blew, witnesses said.

Something else was typical that night, a characteristic of Gandhi’s recent appearances that contributed to his death. It was that Gandhi, a leader cocooned in elaborate security apparatus while he was a prime minister under death threat, had no security cordon around him the night he died.

“It was something he insisted on quite routinely of late,” said Maganbhai Barot, a family friend and Congress-I candidate in the north Indian city of Ahmedabad, where Gandhi attended a similar campaign rally last week.

“The whole time, he kept yelling at his police guards to move away, sometimes slapping them and shouting, ‘Get back! Give some room so the people can reach me,’ ” Barot recalled.

For Gandhi, it was a critical element of his campaign to avoid a replay of the last elections in November, 1989, when his party lost its majority in Parliament, in part because Gandhi was seen as an aloof and distant leader who had little contact with India’s grass roots.

Toward the end of the campaign, which was in its final week when he was killed, Gandhi’s security began to lapse in other ways as well. Security guards responsible for inspecting bouquets for bombs or weapons and for checking everyone in the crowd with a metal detector had relaxed their efforts.

In the two days since the assassination, however, security has been stringent for the remaining leaders of the Congress-I Party and for Gandhi’s family. At the home of his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, for example, teams of black-uniformed army commandos searched every inch of the big colonial house and its sprawling grounds before Gandhi’s coffin was taken there to lie in state.

Bomb squads used sniffer dogs at every tree, shrub, bush and potted plant, and every one of the tens of thousands of mourners had to pass through a metal detector and submit to a body search before they were permitted to pay their last respects.

“It does seem a bit odd,” said one party official as he watched the scene unfold Wednesday. “Kind of like closing the barn after we’ve lost our prize racehorse.”

The Plot to Kill Rajiv Gandhi

The assassin: A stocky, muscular woman, under 30 years old, with a dark complexion. She was dressed in the colors of Gandhi’s Congress-I Party--orange shirt and green pants.

The weapon: Three sticks of high-powered, nitro-based explosives were strapped to her back, tucked into pockets in a homemade, denim belt fastened around her waist--under her loose-fitting clothing--with Velcro strips. The explosives were wired to small switches inside the belt.

The act: As Gandhi approached the stage at the south Indian town of Sriperumbudur at 10:20 p.m. Tuesday, the assassin pushed through the crowd to meet him. Getting to within a foot of the smiling Gandhi, she faced him, bowed deeply and, as he bent down to lift her up in a gesture of respect, there was a blinding flash of light and a deafening explosion.

The suspects: The woman’s body was blown apart but her face was unscathed, and her picture is being compared to known terrorists. The focus of the inquiry so far is on two groups: (1) The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant secessionist army in the nearby island nation of Sri Lanka that is known to have used high-powered bombs and suicide squads as tools for assassinations; and (2) militant Sikhs, who were responsible for the assassination of Gandhi’s mother, Indira, in 1984.


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