Posted by: David Rocks on November 26, 2008
Finally, the shooting has stopped. Navy commandos, police and the army have gained control over all three flashpoints in this shell-shocked city: the Taj hotel was cleared just before sunset; the Oberoi hotel was reclaimed in the afternoon but not before as many as 24 guests were killed; and a final, prolonged assault on a Jewish community center ended violently, with five bodies found.
The death toll crossed 150, and with over 300 wounded in crowded hospitals, could rise further. The names of the dead were not released by the government, but the U.S. State Department said Alan Scherr, 58, and his 13-year old daughter, Naomi, both of Virginia, were among the casualties. At the Jewish center, a Chabad-Labovitch house, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife were among those unaccounted for; reporters at the scene said some people, including two foreigners, were able to escape as commandos jumped onto the rooftop from helicopters and fired into the house from neighboring buildings.
Earlier reports of hostages being held, and terrorists specifically singling out American and Britons by asking for passports are borne out by witnesses, though many guests in the hotels hid in their rooms or in conference halls locked by hotel staff.
At a surreal press conference, where an unnamed navy commando covered his face with a black bandanna and dark sunglasses, details emerged of the 35-hour siege of the Taj hotel—the terrorists were well trained, said the commando, knew the layout of the hotel better than security forces, and for many hours played a deadly game of cat and mouse, moving from room to room and lobbing grenades at groups of guests trying to leave. At the Taj and elsewhere, as many as 14 security personnel were reportedly killed, including the chief of Maharashtra state’s anti-terror squad, Hemant Karkare, who was shot three timmes through his bulletproof vests.
The death toll from the Taj remains unknown, but is likely to be high; guests spoke of bodies and blood strewn across the lobby. As late as 4:30 in the afternoon, nearly 40 hours after the hotel was assaulted, shots rang out from its windows, according to television broadcasts, and hit three journalists, including an AFP camerawomen.
For two hours in the afternoon, frustrated by the live broadcasts of their assaults on multiple private television channels, the government cut out news channels across most of Mumbai and briefly deployed cell phone jammers.
Police reports said that the attacks were two-pronged – with up to 10 terrorists coming in on rubber dinghies from the Arabian sea, while others rented a home near the Jewish community.
Commandos found huge caches of arms, ammunition, Chinese-made grenades and foreign currency, credit cards from Mauritius, and food supplies. Indian investigators pointed the finger at Pakistan, based on the reported recovery of a Pakistani cell phone card, and an identity card of a Pakistani national. At least one terrorist has been arrested, but no details have been released of his interrogation, other than speculation from his manner of speech that he is Pakistani (Hindi, spoken in India, and Urdu, spoken in Pakistan are somewhat similar)
India’s Prime Minister called the Pakistani authorities, reported CNN-IBN television channel, and blamed Pakistan for the attacks, based on initial investigations. Pakistan’s foreign minister denied involvement, calling the perpetratrors “barbarians,” and promised that the chief of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence would travel to India to help with the investigation.
At the Oberoi hotel, nearly 100 foreigners, some of them foreign airline staffers, were escorted out around 2 in the afternoon, but the dead included a Japanese businessman, 38-year-old Hisashi Tsuda. He was in the lobby of the Oberoi Trident Hotel checking in when he was gunned down, his employer, Mitsui Marubeni Liquefied Gas Co, said. Tsuda had arrived with a co-worker and five clients on a business trip that day, and was there to get a closer look at India’s liquefied petroleum gas market.
Most of Mumbai remained in shock; trains were deserted until early afternoon, traffic was light, schools and colleges remained close and rumors flew thick and fast, often aided by anxious coverage on television channels that chased every reported gunshot from location to location.
Updated 7:15 pm India time on Thursday, Nov. 27
From our Delhi correspondent Mehul Srivastava and Mumbai correspondent Nandini Lakshman:
Smoke continued to billow late this afternoon from the third floor of the Taj Mahal and Palace Hotel, the majestic five-star hotel in the poshest neighborhood of Mumbai. Nearly 20 hours after a group of armed terrorists attacked luxury hotels, train stations, a Jewish community center and a café popular with Westerners, the city remained in shock. The attacks have left more than 101 people dead and 250 wounded; those killed include six foreigners, 14 police officers including the Anti-Terrorism Squad chief, many chefs and the manager of the Taj. “It is horrible to see a beautiful edifice converted to a battle zone,” said R Krishna Kumar, the vice chairman of Indian Hotels, the Tata group company which runs the Taj.
Elsewhere in Mumbai, India’s commercial and financial capital effectively shut down. The city’s train system, which normally transports as many as 16 million people a day, was deserted, said a person who was stopped at a railway station from boarding a train by security officials. Financial markets shut, schools closed and most Mumbai residents stayed indoors, heeding a call from Maharashtra state’s Home Minister. Some flights were cancelled, and the touring English cricket team cancelled all matches against its host country.
Police, national security guards and soldiers sent to Mumbai from New Delhi were making slow progress, said Mumbai Police Commissioner A.N. Roy. “They are still cleaning up every room and searching for grenades and the injured,” he said. Six bodies were recovered from the Taj. “We are going to kill or nab the terrorists,” he added.
The coordinated attacks, which started last night in the swanky Colaba area in the southern tip of the city, included gunfights and bomb attacks which continued through the night. While news reports broadcast on Indian television had indicated that armed gunmen had held guests hostage, searching specifically for Americans and Britons, details remained unclear; one police official, who declined to be named, said it is possible that gunmen roamed the hallways while hotel guests hid in their rooms and conference halls.
Throughout the day, guests trickled out of the Taj, helped by the police, while at least one dozen explosions rocked the hotel. Elsewhere in the city, at the Oberoi Trident Hotel and the Jewish community center of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, hostage situations appeared to continue. Television reports showed scenes of panic, including footage of what seemed to be gunmen inside a hijacked police car raking a crowd with bullets. At the Cama Women and Children’s Hospital, gunmen shot people in the lobby and then had holed up on the fourth floor, firing at police, said a state government spokesman in a press conference broadcast on television.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh mooted the possibility of creating a federal agency to handle anti-terror responsibilities. “These attacks, probably with external linkages were designed to cause panic by choosing high profile targets,” said Singh in a statement to the nation. “We are not prepared to countenance a situation where the safety and security of our citizens is violated with impunity.” Without naming Pakistan, he said India would not tolerate the fact that neighboring countries were involved in these attacks. A previously unknown group, the Deccan Mujahideen took credit for the attacks in an email to local papers.
As Singh was on television, one of the terrorists who laid siege on Nariman House, down the road from the Taj and home to several Israelis and other Jews, was also speaking to a local Hindi channel. Imran Babbar, 25, who claimed he had worked with a multinational company, was in one of the apartments in Nariman House with five hostages. He said he wanted “the mujahideen held in India released, and only then will we release the people”.
The attacks come at a pivotal time. Local elections are ongoing in several Indian states, and in April the ruling Congress Party-led coalition government will contest general elections under intense criticism for its failure to stem terrorism and counter an economic slump that has seen inflation rage past 12%, industrial activity slump to half its normal rate and the once red-hot stock markets dropping to multi-year lows. Minister for Commerce and Industry, Kamal Nath, told Reuters that the attacks would not affect India’s economic growth. “This does not have an economic component,” said Nath. “(There will be) no slowdown in investment flows.”
But Mumbai’s stock exchange, which is close to the area of the attacks, was closed Thursday, and the Reserve Bank of India closed all trading in commodities, bonds and foreign exchange markets. If the stock exchange opens on Friday, it will likely see a significant fall, said brokers and analysts. That would repeat a historical pattern that is all too familiar in India, which has seen the most terrorist attacks of any nation other than Iraq, according to data collected by a private security think-tank.
The Mumbai attacks appear to be the one of the best orchestrated terrorist acts in recent times. Police sources suspect the terrorists were dropped by a large fishing trawler mid sea after sundown; they then sailed in a small fishing boat to reach the Gateway of India opposite the Taj. The boat was loaded with ammunition, and police sources said that they had found 8 kilograms of RDX explosives and hand grenades in the vicinity of the Taj. A naval ship, along with choppers and a coast guard vessel, has begun a search for the terrorists’ trawler.
Many city residents are angry about the easy entry of the terrorists into Mumbai. “The navy should be ashamed. A terrorist vehicle sails past their territory, and they don’t even know,” says the managing director of a leading American private equity company who was dining with some prospective clients at a restaurant near the Taj at the time of the attacks. But retired Admiral Arun Prakash says that the navy and the coast guards’ job is to secure the high seas, not the shallow waters of the coast. “The police should have set up a marine force in Mumbai to patrol the harbor and the valuable ground installations,” he said. “That’s not the navy’s job,” he says.