Flamboyant bandit killed in shootout with police

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India's most wanted bandit, accused of murdering police officers, slaughtering elephants and kidnapping a film star, has been killed in a jungle shootout with police after more than three decades on the run.

India's most wanted bandit, accused of murdering police officers, slaughtering elephants and kidnapping a film star, has been killed in a jungle shootout with police after more than three decades on the run.

Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, 60, was shot dead in a gun battle with a police paramilitary task force, said K Senthamaraikannan, police superintendent for the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

"Veerappan and three other associates were killed," the superintendent said. "We have recovered the bodies."

He said police had received a tip that Veerappan, who had a £250,000 bounty on his head, was hiding near the village of Paparapatti, 200 miles south west of Madras, the state capital.

A police intelligence official told The Associated Press that an associate of Veerappan had surrendered about three hours before the battle and led the police team to the hideout.

With his trademark handlebar moustache, lanky frame and camouflage clothes, the flamboyant outlaw had enjoyed a level of celebrity comparable to the Hindi screen idols of India's Bollywood movie industry.

Veerappan had escaped brief capture twice. Peasants, in awe of his daring and dependent on his handouts, had helped him covered his tracks.

Some politicians were also said to be in his pay and police said Veerappan used terror tactics to stay on the run - allegedly stringing up the bodies of suspected police informants from trees.

Veerappan - whose assumed name translates as "brave" - had been on the run since the late 1960s, when he fell in with ivory smugglers. His turf was dense jungle terrain straddling nearly 4,000 square miles in the southern states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. He was accused of smuggling ivory from 2,000 slaughtered elephants.

Vijay Kumar, a superintendent of the Special Task Force, said the team twice offered Veerappan and his handful of comrades a chance to surrender. "The response was not appropriate," Kumar told NDTV television news. "We threw stun grenades and opened fire." He said one of the four men with Veerappan escaped.

Efforts to capture Veerappan were stepped up after his gang swooped into the country home of one of southern India's most popular actors, known as Rajkumar, in August 2000, seizing the then-71-year-old matinee idol and holding him captive in the jungle. Fans rioted at the news of the kidnapping and Rajkumar was set free after three months under circumstances that were not fully explained.

The government denied paying a ransom but officials said money had been paid to Veerappan to secure Rajkumar's release.

The gang also later kidnapped a politician, who was killed.

Since 1990, state governments had spent nearly £18 million hunting for Veerappan. Armed with assault rifles and machine guns, police had used night vision goggles, a global positioning system and helicopters to scour the jungle region.

News of Veerappan's death was greeted with relief today.

"I congratulate each man and officer for this sterling achievement of scaling the very heights of a risky mission, in ridding our society of the murderous menace that has defied us all these years, spreading pillage, destruction and death," Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha Jayaram, the state's elected head, said.

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