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Indian State Mourns Loss of Politician; Manhunt Intensifies for 'India's Most Wanted' - 2002-12-09

Authorities in India are intensifying the hunt for the country's most-wanted bandit after a politician kidnapped by him three months ago was found dead. The outlaw has eluded police for more than three decades. The home state of the bandit's latest victim, Karnataka, has observed a day of mourning.

Authorities in the southern Karnataka state shut down government offices and schools to mourn the death of former state minister Hannur Nagappa, who was being held hostage by India's most wanted fugitive, known as Veerapan.

Veerapan kidnapped 66-year-old Mr. Nagappa from his home in August. His body was found late Sunday in a jungle by police who mounted a massive hunt after the bandit sent an audio cassette saying his hostage had been hurt in an exchange of fire with police.

Authorities say Mr. Nagappa was probably killed by a single bullet wound.

Veerapan had demanded that a Tamil nationalist leader who is in jail on charges of supplying him with arms should be set free to negotiate his hostage's release.

Security was tight in Karnataka, where tensions have been running high since the news of Mr. Nagappa's death.

Karnataka's chief minister S.M. Krishna said efforts to nab Veerapan, will begin again. "We did not pursue our police operations in the last three months. It is largely because we wanted to save the life of Mr. Nagappa. Now that Shri Nagappa has been killed nothing prevents the government of Karnataka in cooperation with the Tamil Nadu government, and the government of India to go after, to end this scourge, this menace," he said.

Mr. Nagappa's death has again turned the national spotlight on the feared criminal, who is wanted for more than 100 murders, and accused of ivory and sandalwood poaching worth millions of dollars.

The bandit, now in his mid-50s, began his career in crime at the age of just 14 by killing an elephant. He soon headed a ruthless gang that slaughtered elephants, felled sandalwood trees and murdered anyone seen as a threat.

Most of his victims have been policemen, forest rangers and bounty hunters. He operates in the thick jungles bordering Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. For years police teams and commandos have led a massive and expensive manhunt, but Veerapan has constantly managed to elude them.

Veerapan last made headlines two years ago when he kidnapped a regional movie icon Rajkumar. Veerapan was reportedly paid a huge ransom for his release.

There has been an uproar in Parliament by lawmakers angered by Mr. Nagappa's death. The government responded by promising that "it will act" to ensure that Mr. Naggapa is the bandit's last victim.