Star returns, suspense stays
India no-balls tour to Pak
Sonia steamrollers rival
Woman found dead in car
Calcutta Weather

Bangalore, Nov. 15: 
Carrying a shawl gifted by his captor, Raj Kumar walked to freedom after spending 108 days in Veerappan�s clutches amid speculation that the actor�s failing health had prompted the bandit to let his star hostage go despite his key demands not being met.

The Kannada icon, taken captive along with three others on July 30, was freed early in the morning and handed over to the team of negotiators led by Tamil nationalist leader P. Nedumaran. Nagesh, Raj Kumar�s last remaining companion in the forests, was also released.

Raj Kumar is recuperating in a hospital near Erode in western Tamil Nadu, and is expected to be flown to Bangalore tomorrow morning in a helicopter. It is not clear whether the negotiators will travel with him.

The reason behind Veerappan�s capitulation remained shrouded in mystery as none of his demands have been met. The bandit had asked for the release of 51 of his supporters jailed in Karnataka under Tada charges. In addition, he had sought the freedom of five Tamil extremists who are in prison in Tamil Nadu.

Though Karnataka had agreed to release the Tada detainees, the Supreme Court stopped the move.

With little information coming through, observers guessed that the 72-year-old actor�s poor health must have led the bandit to set him free. Anything untoward could have led to a backlash against Tamils in Karnataka and that would have sullied Veerappan�s image as a protector of his people.

However, Karnataka government sources insisted there was no reason to worry about Raj Kumar�s health and that both the released captives were undergoing routine check-up in Erode.

Karnataka heaved a sigh of relief as news of Raj Kumar�s release filtered in. Jubilant fans burst crackers and handed out sweets to passers-by, but the celebrations were muted.

Chief minister S.M. Krishna, who announced the release in the Assembly, said he didn�t expect any law and order problem. Krishna later left for Delhi to congratulate his boss Sonia Gandhi on her landslide victory, leaving home minister Mallikarjun Kharge to maintain normality. Not willing to take chances, the government has declared a holiday tomorrow for all educational institutions.

Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi said Raj Kumar had phoned him this morning and promised to visit Chennai within a couple of days to thank him for his efforts.

Veerappan agreed to free the actor after another round of talks with the team of emissaries, which, besides Nedumaran, comprised human rights activists P. Kalyani and G. Sukumaran.

Nakkeeran editor R.R. Gopal was left in the lurch. Gopal, who was once the governments� only link with the elusive forest fiend, was cooling his heels in Chennai, awaiting a signal from his �old friend� Veerappan. He even despatched one of his employees, Sivasubramanian, to the bandit�s forest hideout to wangle an invitation. But Sivasubramanian returned empty-handed.

Nedumaran and his two colleagues, however, ventured into the forests on their own on Monday � the sixth mission since Raj Kumar was taken hostage. They were reportedly accompanied by some Bangalore-based Tamil leaders and Mani.

Nedumaran, who has been under fire for his LTTE links, had earlier refused to undertake the mission after allegations were levelled in the Tamil Nadu Assembly that he was an anti-national and should be arrested.

However, he was persuaded by the two governments and the actor�s sons, who were against any commando operation to rescue their father.

Chennai was abuzz with rumours that Tamil Nadu Liberation Army leader Maran and Veerappan had fallen out over the Gopal question. The bandit had apparently insisted that the journalist be allowed to come to the forests and get his share of the limelight for old times� sake. But Maran is believed to have put his foot down.

The five jailed Tamil extremists, whose release Veerappan had set as one of his demands, had earlier denounced Gopal as an �operator with ulterior motives� with no real commitment to the Tamil cause.

Apparently, the nationalists won the day, indicating that either Veerappan is under their thumb or he himself has become such a passionate convert to the Tamil cause that he couldn�t care less for his one-time publicist.    

New Delhi, Nov. 15: 
The Centre today vetoed the Indian team�s tour of Pakistan this winter in view of the strained bilateral relations, drawing sharp response from the Pakistan Cricket Board which has threatened to call off all matches with India.

Ending a week-long suspense, Delhi indicated that it was in no mood to soften its stand towards Islamabad and that any relationship, even on the cricket field, was inconceivable at this point. The decision had to be taken by today as the PCB had set a deadline.

Though it was left to the foreign ministry to articulate this position, the Centre�s decision came after Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee consulted home minister L.K. Advani, foreign minister Jaswant Singh and sports minister Uma Bharti on the issue.

�Pakistan�s hostile propaganda and the constant calls for jihad against India by the establishment, as well as extremist groups, have created an environment in that country where a regular tour of Pakistan at this stage by the Indian cricket team is inappropriate,� foreign ministry spokesman R.S. Jassal said.

He, however, clarified that India remained committed to the promotion of people-to-people and cultural contacts with Pakistan.

Jassal also asked Pakistan to create a �conducive climate� that would give India the confidence that the security of its team wouldn�t be jeopardised and the tour could serve �positive purposes�.

In Lahore, PCB chief Gen. Tauqir Zia reacted with anger, saying: �We will now have to reconsider our cricketing relationship with India.� Zia also said he would make an �official complaint to the ICC�.

The visit would have been the first tour by an Indian cricket team to Pakistan in 12 years. The last Test between the two countries was in February 1999 in India, around the time of Vajpayee�s bus ride to Lahore. The two met once again in the World Cup quarter-finals in London the same year at the height of the Kargil war.

Delhi�s stand clearly spelt out that it wouldn�t relent till Islamabad categorically gave an assurance that it would stop terror export to Kashmir and other parts of the country.

Sources in the Prime Minister�s Office said Bharti met Vajpayee last night to discuss the issue. Recently, the BCCI had submitted a letter from the ICC to former sports minister S.S. Dhindsa. The letter had pointed out that India was violating the decade-long cricket schedule planned in the Nineties. India was scheduled to tour Pakistan thrice during the period.

But Bharti refused to be conciliatory and even made the announcement that the trip had been called off before the foreign ministry�s official statement earlier in the day.    

New Delhi, Nov. 15: 
Living up to tradition, Congressmen across the country lined up behind the dynasty to give Sonia Gandhi an overwhelming mandate.

Sonia polled 98.88 per cent of the votes to become the 61st president of the Congress, trouncing challenger Jitendra Prasada by a margin of 7,354 votes. Prasada got 94 votes.

The mood at the party headquarters on 24 Akbar Road was one of euphoria and the message of today�s mandate was clear � there is no challenger to Rajiv Gandhi�s widow in the near future. The verdict also indicated that Congressmen are prepared to ignore her inexperience and the controversy surrounding her origin.

Sonia was a picture of confidence. She promised to spell out the new socio-economic agenda in the AICC plenary likely to be held in Bangalore in January. She will now select a new Congress Working Committee and state unit chiefs. �There will be a new Congress. A mixture of youth and experience,� Sonia promised.

Loyalists went all out to celebrate her victory. About 10,000 supporters gathered outside the party office, lining up elephants, horses and fireworks. A huge balloon showered flowers and toffees on Sonia.

A delighted Sonia invited reporters inside 10 Janpath for a chat. Denying that she had a coterie, Sonia described the victory as a milestone of inner-party democracy. She was generous towards rival Prasada.

�It was his right and he exercised it,� she said. But many in the CWC did not share her feelings. They want �madam� to �punish the traitor�.

Prasada, who has little chance of occupying the space of the principal dissident leader, now faces a dead-end in the party. He was miles behind Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot, who got 850 and 325 votes against Sitaram Kesri in 1997. Barring Uttar Pradesh, where he got 70-odd votes, Prasada managed only single-digit figures. He drew a blank in many states and reportedly got one vote each from Bengal and Bihar.    

Calcutta, Nov. 15: 
The body of a businessman�s wife was found tonight inside a locked car par-ked on tram tracks on Rabindra Sarani in north Calcutta.

Police identified the 27-year-old woman as Ruchika, wife of Aloke Jalan. The police suspect that she was murdered. Aloke and the driver were being questioned till late in the night.

The officer-in-charge of Shyampukur police station, Tarapada Dutta, said injury marks were found on Ruchika�s throat.

The police smashed the car window to bring out the body. Ruchika�s parents live in Kathmandu.    



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