Assassin wore bomb strapped to her waist


NEW DELHI, India -- Rajiv Gandhi's assassin dressed for her suicide mission in the party colors of her famous 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.

Three sticks of high-powered, nitro-based explosives were strapped to her back, tucked into pockets in a homemade denim belt fastened around her waist, under her loose-fitting clothing, with hook and loop fasteners.

The explosives were wired to small switches inside the belt. The killer was under 30, stocky and athletic.

Only one of the handful of security men deployed that night spotted her as she raced from the small, outdoor stage to greet Mr. Gandhi as he approached local dignitaries just moments after he arrived in the tiny south Indian hamlet of Sriperambudur Tuesday night.

But it was too late.

Within seconds, the human bomb got to within a foot of the smiling Mr. Gandhi, faced him and bowed deeply. As the 46-year-old former prime minister bent down to lift up the flowers, there was a blinding flash of light and a deafening explosion, and the last of the Nehru dynasty was dead.

His assassin, her body blown into pieces over a radius of 21 feet, has yet to be identified, and the cause that motivated her remains unknown. But after interviews with forensic investigators, witnesses, officials and police, it was possible to reconstruct the assassination -- a few minutes of history that will radically alter the future of the Indian nation.

The unanswered question: Why?

The assassin's face was left intact by the explosion. It was photographed extensively, and 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 high-powered bombs and suicide squads as the tools for official assassinations.

India's law minister, Subramaniam Swamy, said at a news conference in New Delhi yesterday that evidence gathered so far in the case strongly pointed to the Tigers but that there was "no conclusive proof of LTTE involvement."

In several statements from their office in London, the Tigers have denied any involvement in Mr. Gandhi's death.

Dr. Pakkiriswamy Chandrasekharan, the veteran director of the Forensics Science Department of the Tamil Nadu state government, said that evidence recovered at the scene included pieces of the belt, with wiring, switches and traces of explosive still attached.

The belt also bore bits of hook and loop fastener, as well as shreds of the same clothing that were found during autopsies on the recovered parts of the woman's body.

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

The scene, the witnesses said, was typical of the mass confusion that greeted the former prime minister in the hundreds of villages he visited as he crisscrossed the country during his intensive campaign.

Each time, hundreds of women routinely surged forward, shoving garlands and bouquets at Mr. 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 on Tuesday that the suicide bomb blew up, witnesses said.

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