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Indian Police Launch Manhunt for Escaped Suspect in High-Profile Murder Case - 2004-02-18

In India, police have launched a massive manhunt after the prime suspect in the murder of a legendary bandit escaped from a jail in the capital. It is the latest twist in a real-life story that has all the ingredients of fiction: crime, revenge, violence.

Sher Singh Rana's escape from New Delhi's high-security Tihar jail has left the nation incredulous. Two and a half years ago, he allegedly gunned down India's best-known bandit, Phoolan Devi - better known as the "Bandit Queen" - outside her home in the Indian capital.

Jail officials say they were expecting police officers from a neighboring state to take Mr. Rana to a court appearance, when a person posing as a policeman arrived at the prison on Tuesday. He produced fake documents and drove away with the alleged murderer in a vehicle that looked like a police van.

Prison authorities only discovered what happened when the real police escort arrived an hour later. The director general of Tihar Jail, Ajay Agarwal denies there was a security lapse.

The escape has turned attention back to a story that began in the 1970s in the ravines of central India when a 20-year-old girl, raised in poverty and abandoned by her husband, turned to a life of crime.

Phoolan Devi became the leader of a gang of notorious bandits accused of many violent robberies. She turned into a household name in 1981 when her gang allegedly massacred 22 upper caste men in a remote Uttar Pradesh village, apparently to avenge her rape by some members of the village several years earlier.

Phoolan Devi spent 11 years in jail after surrendering to authorities in 1983. After her release, she said she had reformed and even became a member of Indian parliament. She was gunned down in July 2001 by a group of men allegedly led by Mr. Rana.

Police say Mr. Rana confessed to the killing soon after his arrest more than two years ago. They say he told them he wanted to take revenge for the 1981 massacre. He is one of 11 people charged with her murder, and was being held, awaiting trial.

Phoolan Devi's life has been the subject of a film and books. Now, the exploits of her alleged killer also appear to be providing fresh fodder for the world of entertainment.

There have been several jailbreaks from Tihar prison in the past, but the latest is being described as the most daring of them all.

Three prison officials in charge of handing over prisoners for court appearances have been suspended, and a reward is being offered for Mr. Rana's capture.