Witness-Walking the streets on Mumbai's night of fear | india | Hindustan Times
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Witness-Walking the streets on Mumbai's night of fear

india Updated: Nov 27, 2008 11:08 IST

As the first explosion rattled the seafront homes of south Mumbai's Colaba district at about 10 p.m., my first thought was it must be a firecracker left over from last month's raucous Diwali festival.

It was soon clear it was much, much more than that.

Not far away, what appeared to be a small bomb had exploded leaving the mangled remains of a scooter strewn across the street. Windows of nearby buildings had been blown out.

Police were erecting road blocks using their own vehicles and the barrows of street vendors who ply the area.

Emotions were running high, resilient Mumbaikars hardened by bombings over the years clearly angry that once again their city was under attack.

The gunmen who spread fear throughout the city over the next few hours had picked their target carefully the heart of the city's tourist area, packed with shops and many of the luxury hotels favoured by international businessmen and visitors. Among the early targets was the Cafe Leopold, perhaps the most famous hangout for food or a late night drink, an eatery featured in the bestselling novel Shantaram.

On a normal evening, the Colaba causeway near the cafe is packed with stalls selling tourist souvenirs ranging from pashmina shawls to reproduction antique clocks.

Most nights, tourists haggle and move on, heading either for a seafront stroll near the Gateway of India, erected for the visit of Britain's King George V early last century, or their rooms at the nearby 105 year old Taj Mahal hotel.

I reached the imposing hotel at about midnight, but it was a very different scene.

Gunmen armed with automatic weapons and grenades had moved from the Leopold and stormed into the hotel, beginning a long and bloody siege as fire trucks and police cars parked outside.

A series of explosions set fire to the upper floors of the six-storey heritage wing of the hotel and grenades were lobbed from second- or third-floor windows into the street.

Police officers were pulling back and moving forward as they came under attack as were scores of reporters at the scene. As the fires took hold, high-pressure hoses were used to try and dampen the blaze.

In the following few hours, gunfire could be heard within the Taj as firemen with ladders and hydraulic lifts began rescuing people through smashed lower windows.

Women in colourful saris and men in suits who a few hours earlier had been dining in the hotel's restaurants or their rooms nervously edged down the ladders.

As they moved away from the hotel, they recounted harrowing tales of how the siege had begun, how they were forced to dive under tables and lock bedroom doors.

As dawn broke, flames could be seen jumping from the domed roof of the hotel and sporadic gunfire sent bystanders running.