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Captive dead, Veerappan stokes embers

Dec. 8: The body of former Karnataka minister H. Nagappa was found in a jungle this evening hours after his captor Veerappan hinted at an encounter with Tamil Nadu police, injecting a potentially explosive element into tense relations between the two neighbouring states.

Setting aside their differences for the time being, the political leaderships of both the states as well as the Centre scrambled tonight to put up a united front and appeal for peace.

Karnataka has declared a holiday for schools, colleges and government offices tomorrow as a precautionary measure. All trains between Bangalore and Mysore and some from Tamil Nadu to the neighbouring state have been cancelled.

The Tamils in Karnataka had been at the receiving end of earlier Kannadiga backlashes against Veerappan, who traces his roots to Tamil Nadu and has been linked to extremists based there. A few incidents of violence were reported late tonight in Nagappa’s hometown.

The two states also announced the resumption of a joint drive — which had been suspended at Karnataka’s initiative because of political compulsions and against the wishes of Tamil Nadu — to catch the bandit “dead or live”.

Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, too, tried to calm tempers, saying in Ahmedabad that “prima facie” Veerappan’s claim of an encounter “seems absolutely false”. Advani spoke to the chief ministers of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, Jayalalithaa and S.M. Krishna, who have assured him of their cooperation.

Krishna, whose differences with Jayalalithaa on the Veerappan hunt are well known, called her from Delhi this evening.

Already tense over the Cauvery water dispute, the relations between the two states came under further strain when Veerappan claimed in an audio cassette that the hostage was no longer in his custody after they were both injured in an encounter with a Tamil Nadu special task force squad on Thursday. Veerappan had sent the cassette to Nagappa’s family on Saturday night.

This evening — the 106th day of the hostage crisis — the body of the 66-year-old Janata Dal (United) leader was discovered in the Changdi jungles, about 100 km from Bangalore, near the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border.

Sources in the Karnataka home ministry said Nagappa’s body was decomposed and that the former minister could have died at least two days ago.

Jayalalithaa dismissed Veerappan’s claim and said the Tamil Nadu force had no role “in this encounter”, which allegedly took place 40 km inside Karnataka.

Initially, Karnataka home minister Mallikarjun Kharge seemed to virtually repeat Veerappan’s claims. He said the decomposed body with multiple wounds was located in the jungle in Chamarajanagar district, six to seven km from the place Veerappan had mentioned in the tape.

He, however, added that a post-mortem would be carried out tomorrow to find out whether Nagappa had fallen to bullets as claimed by the brigand. Nagappa was a diabetic.

The tragic end to the crisis was in marked contrast to a similar abduction of Kannada film icon Rajkumar in 2000. Rajkumar was released after 108 days amid whispers that a huge ransom was paid.

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