In the fourth major attack in six months, terrorists struck again, this time in the heart of India’s capital. Five consecutive explosions over 31 minutes killed 23 people on Saturday evening.
More than 110 people were wounded in the attack that offered new proof of India’s seeming unwillingness or inability to fight terror even as the threat is not a faraway blip any more. India has already lost an estimated 70,000 lives to terrorism, with little success in investigating or prosecuting most previous terrorist attacks.
The targets on Saturday evening included symbols of the emerging, everyday India: an upscale market, a movie theatre, a sprawling park, the popular sightseeing hub at India Gate. Five bombs
exploded; at least three were found and swiftly defused — two in Connaught Place and one at India Gate — by experts who possibly saved numerous other lives.
In a chilling drill also followed earlier, a shadowy group called the Indian Mujahedeen claimed responsibility in an e-mail to the Hindustan Times and other media organizations.
“Eye for an eye,” said the document, with the image of two men — including a victim of the 2002 Gujarat riots. It threatened: “The dust will never settle down.
“Our intense, accurate and successive attacks like the one you will see exactly five minutes from now, Inshallah, will continue to punish you even before your earlier wounds have healed,” said the e-mail, sent shortly before the explosions.
Investigators tracked the e-mail to an Internet Protocol address registered in the name of Messrs Kamran Power Control Private Limited in Chembur, Mumbai. There was no response when HT tried to call the number for Kamran Power and the phone line had been connected to a fax.
It is unclear whether the company has any link to the explosions, and investigators have not ruled out the possibility of a hacked Wi-Fi connection being used to send the e-mail, as it was done after the Ahmedabad blasts in July.
Sources said the e-mail ID, firstname.lastname@example.org, used to send the mail was created on Saturday itself, and that the person who finally sent the e-mail using the ID had received the mail from someone else on Saturday afternoon.
Whoever the attackers were, 11-year-old balloon seller Rahul said he had seen them at Barakhamba Road, one of the blast sites.
“I saw them … there were two bearded men in black kurta pyjamas," he said, overwhelmed by television cameras and inquiries from the police. He said he saw the men drop a plastic bag inside the garbage can and then go away in an auto rickshaw some time before the blasts occurred.
Even as he spoke to journalists, a rumour spread that his body was strapped with explosives - and police swooped on him and took him away to an undisclosed location. The rumour was incorrect.
"The bombs were placed in a convex shaped wooden box. The explosive used in all the blasts was ammonium nitrate. It had been mixed with shrapnels (ball bearings) to cause maximum damage. Most of them were placed in a dust bin and were set off by timers," said a senior police officer.
Investigators said there were two detonators attached to the unexploded bombs, with a clock timer to trigger the bombings. An analogue clock of "Prince" make was found attached to the bomb.
The first bomb went off at 6:07 p.m. at the crowded Gaffar Market, a cobweb of lanes in Karol Bagh selling imported and knockoff electronics goods.
"The bomb was placed below the CNG kit of an auto rickshaw," a police officer said. "The impact was such that we have not been able to find any residue."
At 6:34 p.m., just as weekend shopper were pouring into Connaught Place to catch the Metro, a blast took place near a station at Barakhamba Road, and another about a minute later at Central Park in Connaught Place. Both were placed in garbage bins.
Police were in the middle of a campaign to give parking tickets to traffic offenders when the blasts occurred.
"The blast … almost blinded me for few seconds. And I stood frozen for a few minutes," said eyewitness Rajiv Thakur, visiting from Mandi town in Himachal Pradesh. He helped some injured victims onto autorickshaws.
"One of the blast victims was a baba (hermit) with long shaggy hair who had met me only a few seconds before. I even had a conversation with him asking about his well-being and how he was managing life, and he said that God was helping him. I have a little strange habit of talking to strangers," he said.
"It was a ghastly sight. There was blood all around and people screaming," said Shashank, who works in an office near the Gopal Das Bhavan. Thousands panicked, setting off a near-stampede.
Blood dripped from a woman's body marking a grisly trail as rescuers lifted her to an ambulance. Even as he lay on the ground, a wounded man reached out for his mobile phone, apparently in an attempt to make a call to a dear one.
"The blast was like a bolt from blue. I was only a few seconds away from the blast site - the garbage can. My hands are still trembling," said Pawan Kamboj, a public relations executive who lives in the Mayur Vihar neighbourhood.
The mayhem did not stop there. Farther to the south, two explosions within a minute of each other ripped through the upscale Greater Kailash-1 market at 6:37 PM and 6:38 PM. But the presence of mind of shopkeeper saved lives. "After the first blast, we immediately announced on the public address system that people should not touch their cars and either leave the area or enter the park in the complex," said Nishikant Sharma, a grocery shop owner. "So when the second blast took place there was almost no one at the blast site."
Even after the blasts, the Metro functioned uninterrupted all of Saturday. But the bombings spread terror across the capital. Shoppers rushed home. Phone lines went down as Delhi residents began to receive calls from across the world from harried relatives and friends.
Police urged shopkeepers to down shutters in some areas as a precautionary measure. Khan Market was quickly shut down. Delivery boys refused to bring takeaway food.
As bomb disposal experts rushed in, there were hampered by crowds of onlookers. "Please let us work, let us work!" an officer shouted. They soon found three unexploded bombs.
(With inputs from Tushar Srivastava)