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Photographer’s Last Shots: Clues to Gandhi’s Killers

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Haribabu was the doer of odd jobs, a two-bit free-lance photographer who lived in a tiny hut with his parents, borrowed his cameras and film and hardly could have known that the job he took for $5 last month would leave behind the only crucial, physical clues to one of India’s most brazen political assassinations.

The 21-year-old Haribabu was killed in the process. Police say he was blown up by the same suicide bomber who, unknown to him, had hired him to record on film the instant that she completed her mission: the May 21 assassination of India’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The 10th frame on the roll of film still inside Haribabu’s borrowed, Chinese-made 35-millimeter camera, which police found largely undamaged on Haribabu’s bloodied chest moments after the deafening explosion, showed an eerie orange-and-red ball of fire--the assassination blast, police say.

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But it was the other nine frames, which were seen in sequence by The Times, that gave Indian government investigators their first real clues to what they say was a wider conspiracy behind Gandhi’s slaying. The nine frames offer a haunting photographic mosaic that now forms the framework of the most ambitious manhunt in India’s modern history.

And, as results from national elections appeared to set the nation on a murky political course, senior investigators who have been working overtime on the slaying from their headquarters in Madras told The Times that, for the first time in weeks, they now have a clear picture of the key personalities who sponsored and abetted what they believe was a conspiracy involving as many as a dozen Tamil extremists and sympathizers.

All of the characters are affiliated with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a well-organized, armed insurgent group fighting a decade-long crusade for a separate state in the nearby island nation of Sri Lanka.

Police say they include a would-be actress; a mother-and-son team who owned a boiler-room printing press often used to print Tigers’ propaganda flyers; the assassin herself, a young killer who joined the Tigers’ female suicide squad apparently after her relatives were slain by security forces in Sri Lanka, and, finally, the team leader and suspected backup human bomber--a young Sri Lankan explosives expert nicknamed “One-Eyed Jack” after he lost his left eye while learning his trade in the jungles of his strife-torn homeland.

The more than 100 Indian federal investigators, who fanned out through south India and nearby Sri Lanka within days of the murder and who are working with Interpol to trace the origin of the explosives, gradually are closing in on the hit squad, they say.

They arrested the mother-and-son team last week, charging in the document justifying their seizure that the two were paid to harbor the assassin and her colleagues for several days before the bombing.

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Two more women suspects, among them an Indian Tamil sympathizer named Nalini, who is described by friends and police as a onetime aspiring but emotionally unstable actress prone to flamboyant extremes, also were rounded up Saturday on suspicion that they were part of a backup assassination team at the scene that night.

The investigators’ search for the squad’s leader and for precise information on the identity of the suicide bomber has been intensive. A $10,000 reward has been offered for any information leading to their identification and apprehension; thousands of leaflets with their color photographs--pictures that are among Haribabu’s final legacy--have been dropped from the air over the Tiger-dominated jungles of northern Sri Lanka.

Already, the senior police official who is leading the probe on the ground here in Tamil Nadu state has expressed optimism that the real sponsors of an assassination that shocked India and the world ultimately will be caught.

“We finally have found the right direction and taken key steps in that direction,” D. R. Karthikeyan, joint director of India’s Central Bureau of Investigation, told The Times in an interview at his Madras headquarters.

“We started with almost no hopes. All we had was this series of photographs. But now, we have used them to identify some key people who lead us further.”

Karthikeyan, an urbane career detective who covers his office walls with such homespun adages as, “The difficult is possible; the impossible will take a little longer,” refused to say whether he believes the Tigers were acting alone or in concert with other extremist forces either inside or outside India.

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“We’re keeping all of our options open at this point,” he said. “There are a number of people involved--I won’t say just how many--and we’re keeping all possibilities alive.

“We’ve only just taken one step. There’s a long way to go yet. But this is a very important step. Remember, there is nothing similar to this anywhere in the world. This is an unprecedented case. Although there have been so many assassinations in the world, there has never been anything like this--I mean, the horrible manner of the crime, its brutal execution and the reaction of a shocked world.

“But now I’m optimistic. We’re finally on the right tack.”

Working methodically from Haribabu’s nine frames, Karthikeyan’s investigators have meticulously identified everyone who was physically associated with the assassin during the moments before she detonated three sticks of RDX plastic explosives that she had strapped to her waist in the pockets of a concealed denim belt. The detectives then traced those associates, as well as their families and friends, to reconstruct the days that preceded the murder.

The most important photograph, taken with a flash at the late-night election rally just a few feet from the spot where Gandhi was killed only moments later, shows the assassin, dressed in the green-and-orange colors of Gandhi’s Congress-I party, flanked by two local party workers the assassin had befriended in the days before she carried out her mission. Both women were killed along with a dozen other bystanders in the explosion in the remote Tamil Nadu village of Sriperumbudur.

A fourth person in that frame, standing just four feet from the assassin, is the man investigators call “One-Eyed Jack” and who they say was the leader of the mission. He is pictured in the photo wearing white pajama pants and a bulging, knee-length shirt, called a kurta , that police say was concealing a backup belt bomb to be used in the event the woman failed to kill Gandhi.

The man is otherwise identified by police only by his aliases, “Sivarasan,” “Raghuappa” and “Mathimagan.” They say he is a known member of the Tigers’ guerrilla intelligence unit who was trained in the use of high explosives. They gathered this information largely from Indian intelligence sources who are experts on the insurgent group.

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The one-eyed leader is shown in the photograph holding a reporter’s notebook that police later found on the makeshift, wooden stage beside the podium where Gandhi would have addressed the crowd of about 10,000 had he lived through the welcoming ceremony.

The notebook is an important clue that police say not only establishes the leader’s apparent backup assassination plan but also reveals the tactical plan that led to Haribabu’s inadvertent photographic legacy. Members of the rebel group passed themselves off as local journalists covering an event now widely criticized for its lax security.

Once they established the identity of the dead photographer, investigators say they were not surprised that Haribabu was chosen for the role he played.

Haribabu was not Sri Lankan. He was one of the 54 million Tamils who live in Tamil Nadu state, many of them sympathetic with the plight of their ethnic counterparts who constitute a minority in predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lanka. But he was unlike a majority of Indian Tamils, who are critical of the gun culture and violence that Sri Lankan insurgents, using Tamil Nadu as a haven and logistical base, have introduced in this Indian state. Police say that Haribabu was known for his close contacts with Sri Lankan militants.

Investigators say that Haribabu was the protege of another, more established free-lance photographer in Madras named Ravi Shankar. Police said they believe Shankar hired Haribabu to act as an unsuspecting journalistic cover for the Tigers on the night of the assassination. Among their clues, investigators say, is this: Ravi Shankar’s wedding album contains photographs of several Tiger contacts, among them two suspects police recently arrested in their investigation of the assassination.

There was an additional dimension to the role that the Tigers intended for Haribabu in their crime, investigators say. Experts who have studied the Tigers’ tactics for several years say that the group is known not only for its use of suicide as an assassination tactic but also for its meticulous, often grisly record-keeping.

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“Clearly, Haribabu was an unwitting instrument of the assassination,” said N. Ram, editor of The Hindu, a prestigious national newspaper published from Madras that has provided valuable assistance in the probe, in part because of its intimate knowledge of local militant contacts and free-lancers such as Haribabu.

“He obviously was brought in as the deception--the host organism if you will. It’s very clear that the man in the white kurta attached himself to Haribabu. And Haribabu obviously took those nine pictures before the assassination on the orders of his employers, to prove they accomplished their mission, although I’m just as certain Haribabu knew nothing of the real plot or he never would have gone there.”

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