India’s 59-hour terror seige ends (Lead)

November 29th, 2008 - 12:12 pm ICT by IANS  

Mumbai, Nov 29 (IANS) India’s longest terror drama that lasted just short of 59 hours ended dramatically Saturday as commandos from three agencies combined with clinical precision to eliminate three militants who had taken over the iconic Taj hotel and virtually held this commercial capital to ransom, killing 148 people and casting a shadow over ties with Pakistan.”Finally, we have been able to win the battle and do the job (assigned to us),” a visibly tired J.K. Dutt, the head of the National Security Guard (NSG), told reporters after the decisive 20-minute phase of the operation.

Plumes of thick, black smoke billowed out of the ground floor windows at the hotel’s northern end Saturday after two retail outlets were torched Saturday to smoke out the militants as some 200 commandos drawn from the NSG, the Indian Army, the Indian Navy and the Mumbai police launched their calibrated attack.

The ploy worked, even as the fire brigade quickly swung into action to douse the angry flames.

The first indication that the authorities intended to go in for the kill came at around 3.30 a.m., when, after a comparative lull of two hours, NSG commandos initially targeted the militants.

A group of six to seven strategically positioned commandos targeted a first-floor window at the northern end of the building where, eyewitnesses said, at least one militant had been cornered.

Other commandos, meanwhile, sprinted toward a corridor linking the new tower of the hotel with its heritage wing where the action was taking place to gain access to the first floor and mount pressure on the militants.

As dawn broke, commandos from the army and the navy joined the offensive and this signalled the start of the decisive phase of the action.

Saturday’s operation marked the culmination of a four-day effort that began Wednesday evening when several terrorists, probably two-dozen and armed with grenades and automatic rifles, sneaked into the city 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 the three 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.

Ten of the dead, including Israeli Rabbi Gavriel and his wife Rivka Holtzberg, directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Mumbai, were foreigners. Twenty-two of the 327 injured are foreigners.

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) Hemant Karkare.

Fourteen militants were killed, while one has been captured.

Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata group that owns the Taj hotel, reached the site shortly after the all-clear had been sounded Saturday to himself inspect the damage wrought on the historic building during the terror strike.

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.

Officials in Islamabad initially said Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, was expected to travel to India early next week. However, a report in a Pakistani newspaper Saturday said Pasha’s representative would instead travel to New Delhi.

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