India on Thursday woke up to its bloodiest fidayeen (suicide squad) attack.
The series of attacks in South Mumbai late on Wednesday unfolded into a hostage crisis on Thursday as militants holed up at two iconic hotels — the Trident and the Taj — and at Nariman House, a building on Colaba Causeway that houses a few Jewish families, dug their heels in for a 24-hour standoff.
As the Army, Navy and National Security Guards engaged the militants in a daylong gunbattle, the death count rose to 127 and the number of injured to 327. Victims included seven foreigners and 14 policemen.
At the time of going of press at 11.30 pm, security forces were locked in fierce battles with the terrorists at all three spots.
By evening, 12 militants had been shot dead, officials said. Three were arrested, among them one identified only as ‘Ismail’ from Faridkot in Pakistan.
Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh said: “We think 20 to 25 terrorists are involved in the operation.” Officials could not say if any of the militants had got away.
Following the discovery of two boats at Cuffe Parade and Sassoon Dock, two ships, MV Alpha and Al Kabir, were intercepted. “Navy personnel are questioning the crew and verifying their documents,” a defence ministry spokesperson said. MV Alpha is registered in Panama and arrived in Mumbai from Karachi.
The Mumbai police can begin investigation only after all hostages are freed. So far, 242 people have been able to come out of the three sites.
“We can start the probe once the National Security Guard (NSG) completes its operation,” Patil said. “The Anti-Terrorism Squad will then start investigations.”
Deshmukh said: “We still don’t know which group — international or otherwise — is behind this, or the terrorists’ nationality. Our priority is to rescue people from these three sites.”
Major General RK Hooda, General Officer Commanding (Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa), said: “The language spoken by terrorists (during their phone call to a TV channel) is similar to Punjabi. Involvement from across the border cannot be ruled out,” he said. Pakistan has denied any involvement in the attacks.
As the battles raged in south Mumbai, the city — shocked and scared — stayed in. Stock markets and educational institutions were shut and many companies declared a holiday.
In the evening, PM Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi visited JJ Hospital. Later, US President George W Bush called Singh to offer support.
An upset Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata group, which owns the Taj, criticised the government: “We had a bomb blast some years ago. We should have learnt to get a crisis infrastructure in place that could snap to attention as soon as something happened.”
The Board Control of Cricket in India called off the remaining two one-day matches between India and England.