As world watches, Mumbai terror kills 148, enters final phase (Night Lead)

November 29th, 2008 - 1:39 am ICT by IANS  

Manmohan SinghMumbai, Nov 29 (IANS) Indian commandos Friday night fought close combat with a handful of dogged terrorists still holed up at the iconic Taj hotel here after securing two other centres taken over by gunmen two nights ago, as the country’s longest terror drama killed 148 people and cast a shadow on relations with Pakistan.With 24 bodies recovered from the Oberoi-Trident hotel and all five hostages found murdered at the Nariman House Jewish centre, New Delhi and Islamabad were locked in a war of words over the suspected Pakistani links of the terrorists, including one taken alive by Indian security forces.

But 50 hours after it all began Wednesday night, one or more terrorists continued to put up ferocious resistance to hundreds of commandos ahead of a final assault on the Taj, near the seaside Gateway of India monument.

J.K. Dutt, who heads the National Security Guard (NSG), whose commandos have fought the terrorists since Thursday morning, put the number of dead in three days of mayhem at 143 — before the bodies of all five hostages were found along with those of two gunmen at the Jewish centre.

Ten of the dead and 22 of the injured are foreigners. They included Israeli Rabbi Gavriel and his wife Rivka Holtzberg, directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Mumbai.

Several terrorists, probably two dozen and armed with grenades and automatic rifles, sneaked Wednesday night into Mumbai, India’s financial and movie capital, by boat, presumably from Karachi. They divided themselves into several groups and quickly struck at 10 places in south Mumbai, including the Taj hotel, the nearby Oberoi-Trident hotel and the Jewish centre. Everywhere they opened indiscriminate fire and hurled grenades, killing people at will.

All three places remained with the terrorists throughout Thursday. On Friday, the commandos first took control of the Oberoi hotel and then the Jewish centre, sparking wild jubilation as thousands living all around the building took to the streets shouting slogans hailing the security forces.

But an unspecified number of gunmen at the Taj held on despite being outnumbered by well-trained commandos. A total of 25 explosions, small and big, were heard in the hotel all through Friday. Gunfire rattled the hotel and fires frequently erupted from different rooms.

Scores of hostages, many of them Westerners, Friday finally walked free from the two hotels as well as the Jewish centre after two nights and days of trauma and close brush with death. A few broke down while others were too stunned to react when the commandos found them, hiding in their rooms.

The NSG lost two men — Sandeep Unnikrishnan and Gajendra Singh. On Wednesday night, 14 Mumbai police personnel were killed including the head of its Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS).

In an unprecedented development, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani to send his country’s spy chief to New Delhi to exchange information about the Mumbai terror, official sources said. Pakistan agreed.

Officials in Islamabad said Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is expected to travel to India early next week. This will be the first time Pakistan’s spy chief will be in India in connection with investigations into any terror attack.

External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the terrorists had links with Pakistan but declined to give details.

Indian cabinet minister Kapil Sibal admitted that the government had failed. “We never imagined that this sort of infiltration will take place in such a meticulous fashion.”

Indian marine commandos who battled terrorists at the Taj hotel, just across the road from the Gateway of India where terrorists had alighted by boat to begin their killing spree, said the gunmen were remorseless and well trained.

“Definitely they were trained. Not everybody can fire AK series weapons. Using such weapons and explosives, it is obvious they were trained somewhere,” said a masked officer of the force.

“These people were very, very familiar with the hotel layout. It appeared that they had carried out a survey (of the hotel) before. And they were very determined. Remorseless.”

The officer and his colleagues saw several bodies inside the Taj hotel.

Leading Spanish politician Esperanza Aguirre recalled her horror in Mumbai. She told reporters in Madrid that she ran barefoot through blood spattered corridors of the Oberoi hotel to escape the terrorists.

“I didn’t even know they were terrorists. I only saw the blood that I had to cross barefoot. I stepped on quite a few puddles of blood,” said Aguirre, president of the conservative Partido Popular of Madrid.

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