Gandhi's assassin thought to be a Tamil terrorist

May 26, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW DELHI, India -- Who killed Rajiv Gandhi?

No one has been officially blamed for the former prime minister's assassination Tuesday night, but that has not stopped investigators from releasing "before" and "after" pictures of the chief suspect -- that is, pictures taken before and after she was blown to bits by the same bomb that also took the lives of Mr. Gandhi and at least 14 others.

what surely passes as one of the more gruesome most-wanted ads, the picture taken after the explosion -- a photo that ran in most major newspapers here yesterday -- shows a collection of body parts put back together in the shape of a young woman. One of the dailies just ran a picture of her head, which was severed by the blast.

The photo taken before the bomb blast shows the suspect, a woman perhaps 20 to 30 years old, calmly standing with a garland of flowers in her hand between two other women

as they awaited Mr. Gandhi's arrival at a campaign rally about 25 miles southwest of Madras in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

According to Indian press reports, the woman is the only one who died in the bomb blast whose body has not been claimed and whose identity is not known.

Nevertheless, Indian investigators reportedly believe that the woman was a trained terrorist on an apparent suicide mission for group called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The LTTE is a militant Tamil separatist group that has been waging a bloody guerrilla war in Sri Lanka, at times from bases in Tamil Nadu.

Although the activities of the LTTE and other Tamil separatist groups were once openly tolerated in India, Mr. Gandhi earned their wrath in 1987 by sending Indian peacekeeping troops into Sri Lanka. The Indian forces ended up clashing with LTTE fighters before leaving in 1989.

A possible connection between the assassination and the LTTE was raised here within hours of Mr. Gandhi's death, long before any evidence from the scene of the explosion could have been collected.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency also was immediately blamed by some of Mr. Gandhi's distraught followers, but many do not believe that allegation.

A LTTE spokesman in London has denied that his group had any involvement in the assassination, and some Indian political observers have now begun wondering in private whether blame has not been ascribed to the LTTE too early.

Doubts about the LTTE's alleged role in the murder were heightened yesterday with reports that the LTTE allegedly initiated what is described as a cordial meeting in March with Mr. Gandhi.

This would have been the group's first contact with him since Indian troops intervened in the Sri Lanka conflict.

During this alleged meeting, an LTTE representative reportedly told Mr. Gandhi that the group wanted to "forget the past," open new relations with him and see him return to power after India's now postponed national elections.

News of the possible meeting came as an Indian news service reported that authorities in Tamil Nadu already have rounded up an unspecified number of LTTE members and are holding them in an unspecified location.

Whatever the motivation for the assassination, investigators believe that evidence from the scene of the explosion shows that the suspect was a walking bomb, Indian press reports say.

While differing slightly, the reports generally allege that the explosives were concealed in the back of a waist belt worn by the woman under a loose dress.

The blast reportedly was triggered by the woman as she approached Mr. Gandhi with the garland of flowers in one hand and then bent forward as if to bow.

Investigators believe that the position of the explosives on her body explains why the woman's face was left intact even though her severed head was found about 50 feet away.

The explosives were a plastic type mixed with steel pellets, which were later retrieved from the victims' bodies.

The plastic explosive has been identified as a type that is made for the U.S. military, Indian reports said.

A local organizer of the campaign stop where Mr. Gandhi was killed, K. K. Sulaiman, said yesterday that

the suspect visited the rally site with two others about five hours before the explosion and asked for permission to give Mr. Gandhi a gift when he arrived, according to one report.

Mr. Sulaiman, who was injured in the blast, said he refused the woman's request, the report said.

A videotape was taken of the explosion by a photographer who had been hired by Mr. Gandhi's Congress Party.

That tape has been confiscated by India's Central Bureau of Investigation, Indian reports said.

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