Terrorist takeover

Print edition : December 19, 2008

In the worst terrorist attack in India, jehadi gunmen bring Mumbai to its knees.

in Mumbai

AT THE TAJ Mahal Palace & Tower hotel, as a gun battle raged inside.-ARKO DUTTA/REUTERS

IT began at about 9 p.m. on November 26 and ended after a long and intense battle, at about 8.30 a.m. on November 29. In those 60 hours, in certainly the worst terrorist attack on India, a group of gunmen brought Mumbai to its knees. The bloody drama, which involved attacks in as many as 11 places in the city, left 183 people, including 22 foreigners, dead. It took a force of 477 National Security Guard (NSG) personnel, a unit of the marine commandos, six columns of the Army, and 400 members of the Mumbai Police to kill or conquer an estimated 10 men. Unconfirmed reports put the number of terrorists involved at 25.

A full 12 hours later, The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel, where the final commando assault took place, was still burning and corpses were being recovered from there. The entire incident left the city, the country and the global community reeling from the magnitude of the terror.

The death roll was likely to rise as the operation to recover the bodies is required to be slow and careful. According to the police, live grenades could be placed under the corpses and could detonate when a body was lifted.

At last count, 239 people were lying injured and nine terrorists were found dead. One of the terrorists was taken alive, and his interrogation will be crucial in uncovering who was responsible for the carnage, and how and why they did it. The police suspect that a few more may have got away but are yet to confirm this.

Going by their targets, it seems clear that the terrorists knew the city extremely well and had done a thorough recce of the area. The Taj Mahal hotel at Apollo Bunder is one of the citys well-known landmarks and is popular with foreign visitors. Similarly, the Trident at Nariman Point is a luxury business hotel that attracts a huge number of foreigners as guests. Both hotels have shopping arcades and restaurants that are popular with local people and visitors from other cities in India. Informed sources say the terrorists were equipped with enough ammunition to carry out a major attack spanning several days. The planning and skill with which they carried out the attack indicated that they were trained by experts. They apparently had all details of the hotels plan and knew their every entry and exit point.

A TV grab of a terrorist carrying an automatic rifle as he enters the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station on November 26.-AFP

Gruesome stories are now coming from the hostages of being shot at point-blank range with machine guns and of being trapped in rooms while fires raged in the buildings that were under siege. Of being held hostage at gunpoint and of having had to hide for hours not knowing whether they would make it out alive. The damage in physical and emotional terms to the city is massive and the recovery will be long and hard.

Initial reports say that on the night of November 26, a group of terrorists entered Mumbai via the sea. A rubber dinghy found at the Cuffe Parade fishermans colony confirms this. Eyewitness accounts from Koliwada, as it is known, say the boat docked at about 9.15 p.m. and a group of young men carrying backpacks got off silently. A woman who was standing nearby apparently asked them who they were, and they told her they were students. She said the group melted away quickly.

Meanwhile, reliable sources say, another boat landed at Sassoon Docks, which is another landing point for fishermen. At a press conference on November 30, after the operation was over, Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh confirmed the arrival of the terrorists by sea. He also said that they believed that 10 terrorists had entered the city. Other than at the Taj hotel where four people entered, they broke up into groups of two and carried out the attack at six locations, he said.

Outside The Taj hotel, people run for cover as gunshots are fired.-PUNIT PARANJPE/REUTERS

At about 9.30 p.m., the first gunshots were heard outside the well-known Leopold Cafe on the Colaba Causeway. Almost simultaneously, there was shooting at the busy Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Following that, in what may be an attempt to get away, it is assumed the same terrorists held the police in combat near the Cama and Albless Hospital near the railway station.

At about 10.30 p.m., sounds of firing and hand grenade explosions were heard from the area. The terrorists then held a gun to the head of a driver in a police car and fled the scene, shooting indiscriminately at onlookers at the Metro Cinema junction near the hospital.

As the citys police force grappled with the crisis, terrorists entered Nariman House in Colaba and captured a Jewish family and three others. Another lot entered the five-star Taj Mahal hotel at Apollo Bunder, close to Colaba Causeway and the Gateway of India. At about the same time, another group stormed the five-star Trident hotel at Nariman Point, one of Mumbais business districts.

From then on a battle raged between the police and the terrorists. Maharashtras Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) chief Hemant Karkare lost his life when two terrorists shot at the jeep he was using to chase them near the Cama Hospital. Two other highly skilled police officers who were with Karkare, encounter specialist Vijay Salaskar and Assistant Commissioner of Police Ashok Kamthe, also died.

Meanwhile, at 9.55 p.m., a blast in a taxi in Vile Parle, a western suburb, left three people dead. At 10.45 p.m., a blast in a taxi at Wadi Bunder injured at least six people in the vicinity.

Ever since the attack, not much information has emerged on this incident. Finally, at 10.50 p.m., the police managed to kill two terrorists in an encounter at Girgaum near Chowpatty in South Mumbai.

Worried relatives outside the Trident hotel on November 28.-PAUL NORONHA

Until 11 p.m., the magnitude of the attack had not yet sunk in. As soon as the visual media broke the news, the city woke up and stayed awake. People telephoned or sent out messages cautioning others against stepping out of their homes. Nobody knew where and when the next attack would be.

As soon as reports on the attacks started filtering out, the media began setting up station at each point of attack. Nobody had an idea of what was on. Through the night, police vans and ambulances zipped through the streets. By dawn, the Army, the Navy and the NSG had moved in.

Some family members remained on the road night and day, waiting for any information about their loved ones. Over the next few days, they would begin making the rounds of hospitals to identify bodies or to locate family members who may be injured.

The few people who managed to escape from the hotels told the media that the terrorists had taken hostages; guests were stuck in rooms and many people were hiding in various parts of the hotels.

The police and intelligence agencies say they have been sending out warnings to large establishments of a massive attack. The Oberoi had, in fact, sent out a missive to shopkeepers saying they should report any activity they thought to be suspicious.

There are many theories about why the terrorists chose the particular locations. A plausible reason, according to an informed source, is that these places throng with foreigners. The terrorists also seemed to target upmarket areas.

The Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels are the preferred choice of many foreign visitors and business travellers. Listed in India travel guides, Leopold Cafe is a favourite among backpackers. At any given time, the place is chock-a-block with tourists.

NSG Director-General J.K. Dutt after the completion of the 60-hourlong hostage crisis at the Taj hotel, on November 29.-SANTOSH HIRLEKAR/PTI

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) is one of the busiest and biggest stations in the country. At 9.30 p.m., the place is particularly crowded as several long-distance trains depart at that time and there are still thousands of commuters making their way home on the local trains. Nariman House houses a Jewish religious centre called the Chabad centre. Israeli travellers come here for kosher food and prayers and to use the library.

But why Mumbai? Apart from being the countrys financial capital, it is a melting pot of cultures. Those who make this city home are deeply loyal to it. It is considered a city of opportunity.

Moreover, Mumbai is surrounded by water on three sides. Its entry points are so porous that it is easy for international terrorists to land here unnoticed.

What the terrorists were trying to prove will probably unravel in the coming weeks. Why there was a failure in detecting such a huge terror movement will also be answered in course of time.

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