Hunt for Indian bandit's hidden jungle treasure

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The Independent Online

A jungle bandit gunned down by police earlier this week was still tantalising India from beyond the grave yesterday. Treasure hunters were said to be scouring the southern jungles jungle where the gang leader known simply as Veerappan held sway until he was killed on Monday night.

A jungle bandit gunned down by police earlier this week was still tantalising India from beyond the grave yesterday. Treasure hunters were said to be scouring the southern jungles jungle where the gang leader known simply as Veerappan held sway until he was killed on Monday night.

Local police ordered people to stay out of the jungle, but admitted their own officers were searching it for the same thing.

They were looking for his millions. The police say they learnt through interrogations that Veerappan used to stash his money in plastic bags and hide them under trees in the jungle where successfully eluded officers for 17 years. Police believe he may have hidden the vast sums from kidnapping, extortion, and smuggling ivory and sandalwood amid the undergrowth. The hunt was also on for a hoard of sandalwood and elephant tusks Veerappan is believed to have kept somewhere in the wilds.

"We have seen groups of locals venturing into the forest looking for Veerappan's money," said the district administrator, U Ravindram. "Hopefully, they will lose interest in due course."

If Veerappan has left anything behind, it will not be easy to find: he roamed 3,600 square miles of untamed jungle. It is not a particularly safe proposition either; the bandit secured his territory with landmines, and some members of his gang are believed to be still at large.

With his giant moustache, Veerappan was the most feared man in India for 17 years. But India had a love-hate relationship with him, thrilling to tales of his daring and cruelty. He was finally cornered by police on Monday night after a manhunt that lasted more than a decade, and went down in a hail of bullets.

The most notorious case of his long career was the kidnapping of the Southern Indian film star Rajkumar, who was then aged in his seventies. The Karnataka state government always denied paying a ransom to secure the actor's release; Veerappan finally freed the actor after three months, during which the star's fans rioted in Bangalore. But a policeman who was involved in the case said the Karnataka government paid Veerappan £2.9m to let the actor go.

That would account for just part of Veerappan's "missing millions", the money the bandit was believed to have amassed that has not been accounted for. Police say they have found already some money hidden in plastic bags in the jungle. Veerappan's widow, Muthulakshmi, has complained that the police have frozen her bank account.

If the villagers scouring the jungle do find any of Veerappan's treasure, they will have a fight on their hands to keep it. The director-general of Karnataka police, D N Borkar, said that his officers are not only in the jungle to look for the money, but they are also there to "ward off treasure hunters". And he warned: "If we find anything unaccounted for from the villagers there, we will take action."

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