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August 2, 2000

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Negotiations with Veerappan may be protracted affair

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George Iype in Sathyamangalam

As government emissary R R Gopal, editor of the Tamil weekly, Nakkeeran, entered the jungles to negotiate the release of Kannada superstar Dr Rajakumar with Veerappan, the villages on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border remained tense on Wednesday.

Police officers said Gopal, along with three of his associates -- Subbu, Shiva Subramaniam and Bala Subramaniam -- arrived in Erode early on Wednesday morning and "disappeared" into the forests after establishing contacts with the Veerappan gang.

Gopal is expected to meet Veerappan in the Sathyamangalam forest range, some 20 kilometres away from Gajanur, the village in Erode district adjoining Karnataka from where the brigand kidnapped the Kannada matinee idol.

The governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu expect information about Gopal's talks with the fugitive sandalwood smuggler to trickle in only after a couple of days. This is the editor's fourth encounter with Veerappan.

Police officials and local residents say unlike in the past, Gopal will need to handle the negotiations with care. It is the first time Veerappan has abducted a celebrity. Second, as Dr Rajakumar's kidnapping has already strained Kannadiga-Tamil relations in Karnataka, Gopal has the tough task of ensuring the star's immediate release.

After his meeting with Veerappan, Gopal is expected to return to Chennai to convey the poacher's demands to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi. Dr Rajakumar's release will depend on how quickly and favourably the Karunanidhi government reacts to Veerappan's demands and conditions.

"We are trying hard for Dr Rajakumar's early release because he is old and may be unable to withstand the forest life with Veerappan for long," Coimbatore Rural Superindentent of Police Tamarai Kannan, who is camping in Gajanur with a posse of armed policemen, told rediff.com

While the state governments are hopeful that Dr Rajakumar and the three other hostages will be released by Veerappan without any physical harm, the police have spread out in the villages to maintain peace and communal harmony.

After two days of bandhs and protest marches, shops and offices in Gajanur and its adjoining areas re-opened on Wednesday.

"But we will have no peace of mind till Rajakumar is set free by Veerappan. We do not want to see Tamil-Kannadiga riots because of the film star's abduction," said Srinivasa Prasad, a studio owner in Thalavadi. Gajanur and Thalavadi are close to the Karnataka border. Nearly 90 per cent of the population here are not Tamils, but Kannadigas.

"We hope the star's kidnapping will lead to a permanent solution to the Veerappan menace for us," Prasad told rediff.com

Forest and police officials said Veerappan's abduction of Dr Rajakumar was aimed at "a big catch" this time. "We expect Veerappan will offer to surrender on his own terms and conditions. Considering the threat to the star's life, Veerappan's conditions will put the government in a tight spot, a forest department official said.

He told rediff.com that Veerappan planned Dr Rajakumar's abduction with the help of "some key informers in the villages of Gajanur and Thalavadi."

"We are sure Veerappan's supporters in the villages informed the gang that Dr Rajakumar would be at his farm house on July 30," he added.

But he said it is difficult to establish the villagers's links with Veerappan.

Police officials suspect the abduction was not planned by Veerappan alone. "We think there are some groups who helped Veerappan to organise Dr Rajakumar's kidnapping," a senior police official disclosed.

The official cited several reasons to substantiate his point. First, he said, Veerappan's gang that came to the actor's farm house consisted of 14 people, most of them young men. "He has been on the run for the last three four years. We were certain his gang has been considerably reduced to less than 10 members," he said.

Second, the official said, according to information provided by Dr Rajakumar's family members, Veerappan's gang carried modern guns, most probably the AK-47. The police believe only an outside agency could have supplied Veerappan with AK-47 riffles.

Third, the cassette that Veerappan gave Dr Rajakumar's wife Parvathamma was a micro-cassette. The police suspect "the outside gang" must have provided Veerappan with the micro-cassette and a modern tape recorder.

Vodda Nagaraj, a Kannada actor and a close friend of Dr Rajakumar who was let off by Veerappan after learning that he suffers from diabetes, told rediff.com that the rifles that the forest brigand and his men carried were AK-47s.

Nagaraj, who acted in nearly 50 Kannada films as a villain along with Dr Rajakumar, said: "I have seen the shape and size of AK-47 guns while shooting in films. I am sure they were carrying modern guns."

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