Silence at Taj, Oberoi; terror toll 125

November 28th, 2008 - 7:37 am ICT by IANS  

Manmohan SinghMumbai, Nov 28 (IANS) As dawn broke in India’s commercial capital Friday, silence prevailed at two luxury hotels as commandos moved in to flush out gunmen who had unleashed the most audacious terror attack the country has witnessed, with at least 125 people already dead and 327 injured.Three explosions were, however, heard at the Nariman House, the third building the attackers had stormed Wednesday night and from where the security forces shepherded out seven more hostages early Friday.

Two explosions followed in quick succession around 2.30 a.m. and a third was heard just before 5 a.m., even as snipers were taking position around the building.

Eyewitnesses at the site said it was surprising that there was no retaliatory fire from the terrorists as the hostages were being brought out but the explosions occurred much later.

The Bombay Stock Exchange was likely to reopen Friday after being closed Thursday as the authorities struggled to cope with India’s longest hostage drama that has been likened to this country’s 9/11.

Malls, cinema halls and schools will, however, remain shut for the second day Friday.

Sporadic bursts of gunfire and explosions continued till past midnight from the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel and the nearby hotel Oberoi Trident as commandos from the National Security Guard (NSG) threw a ring around the two places before moving in to sanitise the two buildings room by room and floor by floor.

The gunfire died down as the commandos moved into the two hotels.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flew into Mumbai Thursday night and drove straight from the airport to the JJ Hospital to meet some of the injured even as a huge fire raged at the landmark Taj hotel facing the seafront Gateway of India monument and was doused with some difficulty.

By Thursday evening, NSG director general J.K. Dutt announced that only two terrorists remained to be captured or killed in the Oberoi complex while a single terrorist, injured but still free, was holed up in the Taj. He also said his men were “in total control of the situation” at Nariman Bhavan.

By Thursday evening, all hostages had been freed from the iconic Taj hotel, one of the first of 10 targets of the terrorists.

As the evening progressed, several hostages were seen walking out of the Trident hotel and the Nariman House in south Mumbai where the terrorists, believed to be from Pakistan, had fanned out after landing in darkness at a fishing village Wednesday night by boat armed with arms and ammunition.

In no time, the gunmen began firing from automatic rifles and hurling grenades, killing people at will. By Thursday evening, the death toll had risen to 125, including about half a dozen foreigners.

In New Delhi, before flying to Mumbai, a grim looking Manmohan Singh addressed the nation: “It is evident that the group which carried out these attacks, based outside the country, had come with a single-minded determination to create havoc in the commercial capital of the country.

“We will take up strongly with our neighbours that the use of their territory for launching attacks on us will not be tolerated and that there would be a cost if suitable measures are not taken by them.”

Assisting the NSG were the army and the navy as well as the riot police.

As they prepared for the final onslaught, three fires broke out at the Taj extensively damaging the 105-year-old heritage building. At the Oberoi, people were seen waving desperately from the windows.

“It’s a motivated, well planned terrorist attack,” added Major General R.K. Hooda of the Indian Army.

TV grabs showed that some of the terrorists were young, trendily dressed in jeans and T-shirts and carrying rucksacks.

One of them, calling himself Shahadullah, telephoned India TV channel to say he was from the Indian city of Hyderabad and belonged to a previously unheard of group called the Deccan Mujahideen.

Speaking in Hindustani with an accent, the man said the attack had been carried out to avenge the 1992 destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya and the “repression” of Muslims in India. He said the hostages would be freed only in exchange for the “mujahideen” in Indian prisons.

But an army officer supervising the operations said the terrorists were conversing in Punjabi. He said one arrested terrorist was from Faridkot in Pakistan.

Mumbai remained tense through the day, with few people venturing out of their homes. Most suburban trains — the city’s lifeline — ran virtually empty. Schools, colleges and businesses were shut. Wednesday’s attack was the third major terrorist strike in Mumbai since March 1993.

A stunned international community condemned the wanton killings. US president-elect Barack Obama asked Washington to work with India to root out and destroy terrorist networks worldwide. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “Such violence is totally unacceptable.” The European Union also denounced the terrorists.

The US, Britain, Canada, Australia and France were quick to warn their citizens to avoid travel to Mumbai. The US embassy in New Delhi urged its nationals to defer travel to Mumbai for 48 to 72 hours.

In Chandigarh, Pakistan Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi denounced the killings as “barbaric”. He said Islamabad had faced similar situations and it would be immature to link the attack to his country.

Despite the crisis and his promise not to take up divisive issues now, Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani was critical: “The government itself is terming it intelligence failure, so I should not say anything.”

The survivor stories were plenty.

Indian Communist MP N.N. Krishnadas said after being rescued by commandos Thursday: “I was having dinner with some colleagues when two masked militants barged into the restaurant. They fired indiscriminately. I saw three people being shot. The terrorists left the room soon after.”

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