Nov 30, 2008

India - How the Taj — the war zone — was reclaimed

Rahi Gaikwad

Mumbai: The 60-hour pitched battle at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai, finally ended early on Saturday morning with the National Security Guard (NSG) commandos killing all the four terrorists holed up there.

It was a war zone inside and outside the hotel. Sporadic blasts and firing over two nights peaked into a heated exchange of gunshots and simultaneous grenade attacks between the two sides.

On Friday, one of the terrorists had been killed. Thereafter, the offensive appeared to have eased up a little. After a long lull through the night, the situation hotted up once again a few hours before dawn.

The final leg of the operations began around 3.35 a.m. on Saturday. A sudden wave of five explosions and heavy firing began. A few minutes later the combat got more intense as seven powerful explosions rocked the hotel within a span of one and a half hours. The firing too became heavy and incessant.

The battle kept moving closer to the ground floor from the first floor of the hotel building. The activity of the Army, police and the NSG in and around the building also gathered momentum. A fresh batch of NSG commandos was seen entering the hotel lobby. Another team reportedly made a back-door entry.

Commandos were also seen positioning themselves outside the building. Most of the gunshots were heard coming from where the commandos reportedly cornered one terrorist.

Two huge fires engulfed rooms of the first and the second floor. After the fires were doused it appeared that the end was in sight. Later NSG Director General J.K. Dutt announced to the media that the operation had come to an end and the three other terrorists were killed.

Speaking about the operation later an NSG commando who killed one attacker in room 70 of the hotel said, “We went up using a rope ladder and started combing operations downwards.”

The officers were given food packets to sustain themselves during the combat. The terrorists on the other had stocked up almonds, cashews and raisins. They put up a tough fight.

“We could not tell from where they would come. They were wearing commando outfits, but one can see through the impersonation,” said another commando.

Rakesh Maria, Joint Police Joint Commissioner (Crime), Mumbai, told journalists that the Taj operation took the longest because the hotel had the most number of terrorists compared to the Trident-Oberoi hotel and Nariman House, which had two each.

Moreover, he said, “We did not know if the terrorist was alone or he had taken someone hostage. So, we had to be doubly cautious.”

The terrorists knew their way around the hotel. They were armed with AK 47s and carried grenades. “As soon as they felt a little pressure, they would hurl a grenade. They had the sophisticated ammunition and they used it freely. We used minimum ammunition,” said Mr. Dutt.

The authorities have recovered 10 AK 47s, ten 9mm grenades, a mobile phone and two sets of 8 kg RDX and explosives, said Mr. Maria.

Victory at last

As news of the success of the operation sunk in, the streets outside Taj filled with jubilant crowds. They congratulated the NSG commandos, took pictures with them and raised slogans of ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai.’ They hailed the officers shouting, “The country is very proud of you!”

When the commandos left the hotel on three buses, they cheered them and gave them a rousing ovation.

40 killed, some missing

Around 40 people are believed to have died at the hotel. Some have gone missing. A Malaysian resident Sivakumaran flew down on Saturday to the city. His wife Hemlata Kasipillai was untraceable. “We have gone to all the hospitals. JJ Hospital reported that she was seen with a British national, but we do not know where she is,” he said.

She had last contacted a German colleague on Thursday at 1 a.m. “After that I tried calling her, but in vain,” Kasipillai said.

Journalist dead

Sabina Sehgal Saikia, journalist with a national daily who was reported missing, has been pronounced dead. It has been reported that the last message she sent to a relative said, “The terrorist is in the bathroom and I am under the bed.”

Mr. Dutt said 22 bodies of civilians have been recovered so far. The count has not yet ended. “I hope that we do not find any more bodies,” he said. “We are preserving evidence of identity and noting the location of the bodies to make identification easy,” he said.

A carpet of glass shards

The fires have ravaged parts of the heritage building of the Taj hotel. One treads on a carpet of glass shards around the hotel and underneath its frontal arches. Parts of the fifth, sixth, first, and grounds floors have been gutted in the conflagration. The stone has blackened and window panes hang loose from the hinges. The metal porches and the cars parked outside the hotel have bullet marks all over. Remnants of exquisite beauty and ugly devastation make an odd coexistence.

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