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Friday, May 24, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Human Bomb -- How Assassin Killed Gandhi - And Herself

Los Angeles Times

NEW DELHI, India - Rajiv Gandhi's assassin dressed for her suicide mission in the party colors of her target, an orange shirt and green pants. And she carried a floral bouquet as an added prop, insurance that she would get close enough to the target to blow him to bits.

High-powered explosives were strapped to her back, tucked into pockets in a denim belt fastened around her waist with Velcro strips and hidden by her loose-fitting clothing. The explosives - probably plastic known as RDX - were wired to a 3-volt battery and small switches inside the belt.

One security guard spotted the stocky, muscular assassin as she approached Gandhi. But it was too late.

The human bomb got to within a foot of the smiling Gandhi, faced him, bowed deeply. As the former prime minister bent down to raise her up in a gesture of respect, there was a blinding flash of light and a deafening explosion, and the last of the Gandhi dynasty was dead.

His assassin, blown to pieces over a radius of 21 feet, has yet to be positively identified, and the cause that motivated her remains unknown.

But after interviews with forensic investigators, eyewitnesses, officials and police, it is possible to reconstruct the assassination - a few minutes of history that will radically alter the future of the Indian nation.

The assassin's head was blown off by the explosion, but her face was left intact. Indian intelligence agents, along with federal investigators from New Delhi, are checking her features against the files of known extremist groups - particularly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant secessionist army in the nearby island state of Sri Lanka that is known to have used bombs and suicide squads as the tools for assassinations.

Gandhi was killed in Tamil Nadu state, where Sri Lankan insurgents have training bases and ammunition depots. Just a few months before his death, rebel leaders in northern Sri Lanka, where they have fought for Tamil independence since 1983, boasted about newly formed suicide squads of women and children.

And Gandhi was no friend of the Tamil Tigers, the informal name of the largest Tamil insurgent group. As prime minister in July 1987, Gandhi brokered an agreement with Sri Lankan authorities that sent tens of thousands of Indian troops to the island, where they were soon locked in a brutal campaign against the Tigers.

India's law minister, Subramaniam Swamy, said yesterday that evidence gathered so far in the case strongly points to the Tigers but stressed that there is "no conclusive proof of (the group's) involvement."

The Tigers have denied any involvement in Gandhi's death.

Emerging after two days of investigation is, in the words of Dr. Pakkiriswamy Chandrasekharan, "a very, very, very simple case." As in most suicide attacks, he said, the killer was not worried about leaving clues behind.

Chandrasekharan, the veteran director of the Forensics Science Department of the Tamil Nadu state government, yesterday said evidence at the scene had disproved initial reports that the assassin had hidden a bomb in a bouquet of flowers or nearby flower pots.

Chandrasekharan said the large quantity of evidence recovered at the scene - including pieces of the belt, wiring, switches, battery and explosives - led his investigators to their conclusion about how Gandhi was killed.

Although the assassin's face was not marred, as Gandhi's was, the forensics team found that the back of her severed head had been blown off, leading them to conclude that she was bowing at the time of the explosion.

The one part of her body that had disintegrated in the blast was her torso, which Chandrasekharan said confirmed his theory that the assassin was wearing the explosives around her waist.

The assassin's facial complexion is very dark, Chandrasekharan noted. But the forensics chief, who is himself an Indian Tamil, said that he gives little credence to local belief in south India that Sri Lankan Tamils are darker in color than - or in any way physically different from - Tamils of India.

Eyewitness accounts tend to back up Chandrasekharan's version of the assassination.

Most of the witnesses interviewed have spoken of seeing a young, dark-complexioned woman force her way through the mass of supporters awaiting Gandhi behind a metal barricade. A few feet away was an enclosure where Gandhi was greeting local dignitaries.

The scene, the witnesses said, was typical of the mass confusion that greeted the former prime minister in villages he visited during his intensive campaign to bring his party back to power.

Each time, hundreds of women routinely surged toward the handsome leader, shoving garlands and bouquets at Gandhi, who would hold them for a moment and then toss them back into the crowd as a playful blessing. And it was just at that point in the routine in Sriperambudur that the suicide bomb blew, witnesses said.

-- Information from Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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