In hot pursuit

Print edition : February 17, 2001

The Special Task Forces' brief encounter with Veerappan in the Walayar forests on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border on February 2 strengthens their resolve to catch the brigand.

IT was a near miss once again for the Special Task Forces (STF) of the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka police forces on the trail of forest brigand Veerappan. On February 2, STF personnel sighted the fugitive near Chemmanthimalai in the Walayar forests in the P alakkad gap of the Western Ghats, but failed to capture him.

A Special Task Force team during a search operation in the Chinnampatti forest area on February 3.-K. ANANTHAN

However, they are now confident that they will catch him soon, dead or alive.

This is the first time in about 75 days after Veerappan released Kannada film actor Rajkumar from captivity that the STFs have located his hideout. Going by the account of Ayyappan, a tribal person who was recently accosted by Veerappan, the gang on the run is a famished lot today. Most of Veerappan's communication links with his "external contacts" must have been snapped, for the group left behind on February 2 during the "encounter" with the STF, cellular phones, an external antenna for use with these phones, a solar battery charger, a wireless set and a micro-cassette recorder with a mini-cassette tape, among other things.

It was late in the evening of January 30 that Veerappan and some 10 members of his gang reached Ayyappan's hut at Varalapatty, a Kerala village sandwiched between Chinnampatti and Pudupatty on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. They carried firearms and a few bags containing utensils. Ayyappan was quick to recognise Veerappan and his deputy Sethukuli Govindan. The gang asked Ayyappan for provisions. When it was told that there was no food in the house, it asked him to cycle to the nearest shop, which was a f ew kilometers away, and buy rice. He was paid Rs.800 to repair his punctured bicycle and Rs.500 to procure rice. But fearing the police, Ayyappan, after delivering 10 kg of rice to the gang, telephoned the Madhukkarai police station and informed it about the presence of the gang.

Two policemen who accompanied Ayyappan saw Veerappan from a distance, but returned to the police station since they felt they could not take on Veerappan and his group on their own.

According to Ayyappan, Veerappan asked his (Ayyappan's) brother to procure groceries mentioned in a list in three days and gave him Rs.3,000 for the purpose. Ayyappan's efforts to detain the gang on the pretext that he would cook rice for them was of n o avail. Veerappan and his men disappeared into the forests, after promising to return to collect the groceries on February 2. Kerala Police reinforcements came a few hours afterwards.

The Kerala police alerted the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka STFs, who combed the area. On February 2, STF personnel sighted Veerappan and the members of his gang, including Sethukuli Govindan and Chandra Gounder. But the gang fled, leaving behind eight havers acks containing three cellphones, a digital diary, a mariner's compass, a CD player, about Rs.3 lakhs in cash, medicines (including those for treating blood pressure, asthma and a few common ailments), bandages and dry rations. Some pamphlets brought out by the People's War Group were also found. The police pressed into service sniffer dogs.

The next day, the STF encountered a gang from Idukki district in Kerala, which had come to the area to buy ganja. The STF opened fire on them and Raghu of Idukki district was captured.

The Tamil Nadu STF personnel's efforts to take Ayyappan to various locations in the forests did not help, but an intelligence team of around 30 STF personnel stumbled on the gang on February 2, while they were preparing to eat their lunch. The gang misto ok the lungi-clad STF personnel for locals collecting firewood. According to one of the intelligence team members, Chandran Gounder even beckoned one of the STF personnel to come closer. If the gang was taken by surprise so was the STF. An STF officer sa id, "It was only ethics that prevented me from shooting at the gang. We never thought it was the Veerappan gang." Sources disclosed that one of the gang members was injured when a hand grenade exploded.

Border Security Force (BSF) commandos soon joined the STF operation in the Walayar and Malampuzha forests, in the Palakkad gap. The entire Walayar Hills were now under the control of the STF and the Kerala Police. Combing operations also got under way in the forests of Elival, Akamalavaram and Kaba. On February 6, all the forces together searched the rocky areas near Parapatty, where some caves are located. The police said they had found evidence of Veerappan having stayed there.

A helicopter engaged in aerial reconnaissance at Chinnampatti.-K. ANANTHAN

The presence of Veerappan in and around the dense forests of the Palakkad gap being an established fact, STF operations are now in full swing in the forests of Chemmanthimalai, Paraipatti, Koosimalai and Chinnampatti. Tamil Nadu and Karnataka STF personn el, numbering several hundreds, have been joined by the men of the Kerala Police and the Kerala Armed Police. R. Rajagopalan, Director-General of Police, Tamil Nadu, and A.X. Alexander, Additional DGP (Special Operations), are in the Walayar area, direct ing the combing operations. Indian Air Force helicopters carrying commando teams, code-named Eagle-1, make regular sorties from the Sulur airfield, near Coimbatore, flying over the Walayar forests. The STF is equipped with night-vision glasses and landmi ne detectors. Small teams of STF men, armed with walkie-talkies, comb the forests.

The Kerala Police, who for the first time ever, filed a first information report (FIR) against Veerappan and 10 others upon a complaint from STF personnel that the poacher and his gang had attempted to kill them. Palakkad Superintendent of Police Tomin J Thachankery told Frontline that the Kerala Police "would either like to nab him or drive him out of Kerala". According to informed sources, the Kerala Police had initially asked the Tamil Nadu STF to register the FIR in Tamil Nadu, as it did not want to get involved in the matter.

Informed sources said that Veerappan could not have reached the Palakkad gap from the Andhiyur forests without the help of external contacts. There are as many as 10 intersecting roads between these two areas and it would have been impossible for Veerapp an and his men to have traversed the route without having been intercepted. The sources said: "Veerappan demanded that the STF should not resume its operations for three days after he released Rajkumar. He must have used these three days to reach Walayar forests by car."

On February 4, the police seized a new car in outer Walayar area after an anonymous caller informed them about the abandoned vehicle. The car did not bear any number plate. But plates with certain Kerala registration numbers and two other fake numbers we re found inside it. Another plate, with a Pondicherry number was found in a nearby bush. It is speculated that the car was meant to pick up Veerappan.

Police sources said that the cell phones left behind by the gang "showed that either Veerappan or the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army (TNLA) cadres must be keeping in touch with the outside world. According to the police, the digital diary contained many phon e numbers, which "will be helpful in tracking the external links" of not only Veerappan but also the TNLA and the Tamil National Retrieval Force (TNRF).

Interestingly, the diary revealed not only authentic information about the STFs, including the call signs they used for communications and camps, but also three prominently written seven-digit telephone numbers (3342696, 2258874 and 2261610) against a na me beginning with the letter R. While one of these (3342696), though not listed in the Bangalore Telephone directory, is an old number of the Rajkumar residence, the other two are of Vajreshwari Combines, an agency that distributes Rajkumar's films. Acco rding to STF sources, the soiled notes in Rs.500 denominations have come from Bangalore. It is conjectured that the money was part of the 'deal' struck to free Rajkumar.

IF the sighting of Veerappan and his assistants from a distance of about 200 metres was an achievement in itself - the last being in November 1998, when Veerappan was spotted by a patrol of the Karnataka STF at Haleru Halla near Kadambur on the Tamil Nad u-Karnataka border - the fact that he once again managed to escape has not done anything to negate the feeling that apprehending the brigand is still a near impossibility.

Sustained patrolling of the National Highway and the rail line from Coimbatore to Kerala, and the heavily forested area on either side of the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border from the Vellingiri Hills in Tamil Nadu to the Walayar and Malampuzha forests of Kerala and terminating at the Palakkad gap will, according to STF sources, pay dividends. The STFs admit that Veerappan still has a few choices before him - he could either lie low or try to sneak back into the Tamil Nadu forests. Given the 40-km-wide Palakkad gap where there is no forest cover, it will be difficult for Veerappan to slip further into Kerala. Veerappan may also not be as familiar either with the terrain or the people of the Kerala forests as he is with those in the Satyamangalam-Bargur regions . But the sizable quantities of sandalwood and cash that he has buried in the forests could help him buy his way out of trouble, as they have done in the past.

Although shorn of some vital supplies and communication equipment, Veerappan was seen carrying a country-made double barrel gun when he fled. STF personnel feel that the gang may also be in possession of a few hand grenades.

TAMIL NADU Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi told the State Assembly on February 2 that the State government had spent Rs.7.43 crores on the STF from 1993-94 to December 31, 2000. This included salary for the personnel. Karnataka had spent Rs.20.24 crores on its STF between 1993-94 and October 2000.

Veerappan's presence in the Kerala forests has not come as a surprise to the STF, who ever since intelligence reports had suggested that Veerappan had left the Satyamangalam forests, have been concentrating in the Mudumalai and Sevanti Hills of the West ern Ghats. According to Thachankery, the Kerala Police even intercepted some mobile phone calls Veerappan made. The gang's camp during the February 2 encounter was close to a motorable road that led to a limestone mine belonging to Malabar Cements. Relia ble sources disclosed that Veerappan had apparently come to meet someone there.

The STFs hope that the Karnataka STF's shoot-at-sight orders against Veerappan and posters announcing rewards up to Rs.40 lakhs for information on the gang's whereabouts will help end the two-decades-long search.

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