Nov 28, 2008

Mumbai's night of terror
By Raja Murthy 

MUMBAI - The unprecedented night of horror in India's financial capital began 
at about 9.30 pm for two Germans, Rita and Thomas, part of a Lufthansa 
in-flight crew finishing dinner at Leopold Cafe in Colaba in south Mumbai. 

Barely five hours earlier, Asia Times Online published an article ( Closing 
time for India's Iranian cafes) mentioning the restaurant as a favorite of 
Western tourists, and this popularity caused it to be among the first of 12 
terrorist targets on Wednesday night that killed more than 80 people and 
injured nearly 300, and the figures are rising. 

Apart from the cafe, groups of militants armed with automatic weapons and 
grenades burst into luxury hotels, a hospital and a railway station, spewing 
death. As of publication time, many tourists were being held hostage in the Taj 
Mahal hotel, a 105-year-old landmark, and the five-star Trident Oberoi. 

"I saw the terrorist firing his machine gun at people sitting at the next 
table," Rita said, "and then thought the gun would turn around to me." But the 
terrorist, in his mid-30s, swung the gun away from her, momentarily distracted 
by his accomplice waiting in the mezzanine floor and firing randomly at diners. 

Her life had been saved in that split second. Police said they had killed four 
gunmen and arrested nine. A group identifying itself as the Deccan Mujahideen 
said it was responsible, per emails sent to news organizations. Virtually 
nothing is known of this group. "Deccan" is an area of India and "Mujahideen" 
is the plural form of a Muslim participating in jihad. Security officials 
believe it unlikely an unknown group could carry out such a precise and 
heavily-armed attack. 

It is more likely to be the work of the Indian Mujahideen, an Islamist group 
that has claimed responsibility for other attacks in India. On Thursday 
morning, speaking from inside the Oberoi where foreigners are being held 
hostage, a man identified as Sahadullah told India TV he belonged to an Indian 
Islamist group seeking to end the persecution of Indian Muslims: "We want all 
mujahideens held in India released and only after that we will release the 

No one knows how the terrorists arrived in the city. One theory is that they 
came from the sea in an explosives-laden boat. But there is no doubt about 
their agenda. 

Rita, Thomas and Jesper, the latter the owner of a shipping company from 
Denmark, fell to the floor with other diners at the Leopold, some on top of 
each other. "We thought if we lay down and kept still, the gunman would think 
we are dead," said Rita, a blonde stewardess serving on Lufthansa Flight 764 
from Mumbai to Munich.

As the machinegun-wielding murderer ran up to join his accomplice upstairs, the 
trio fled into an already panic-stricken street, over a dead body and leaving 
their bags, money, cell phones and unpaid dinner bill behind. But the night of 
terror for Rita and her friends was only beginning, as it was for a city of 13 
million not unused to terrorist strikes but never in such prolonged horror. 

The trio were staying at the Oberoi Hotel in Nariman Point, a rare case of 
victims caught in two of the dozen terrorist-hit areas in Mumbai on the fateful 
night. Hemant Karkare, chief of the city's anti-terrorism squad, was among 
three senior police officials killed in a police counter-attack against the 
terrorists holding hostages as the Oberoi and Taj Mahal. By 10.30pm outside the 
Oberoi, by the Arabian Sea on Marine Drive, it was surreally quiet, with roads 
dark and deserted, in contrast to the usual daytime office bustle in one of the 
city's busiest and most expensive office areas.

I reached the Oberoi minutes after seeing the news flash on TV, even as gunmen 
were holed up inside the hotel and police cordons were being thrown around the 
white-painted building. I recalled the Marriott in Islamabad, which terrorists 
struck on September 20, setting it alight. Would the Oberoi and Taj suffer the 
same devastating fate? No one nearby, including police constables, had any 
clear idea of what was happening, except that gun shots had been fired and 
there were multiple explosions. 

Small groups of bystanders joined fleeing uniformed hotel staff running into 
the night. Sporadic gunfire and explosions could be heard from the Taj Mahal 
about two kilometers away. Oberoi hotel guests periodically raced out, 
crouching and escorted by poorly armed policemen. Sunil (name changed on 
request), a Marine Commando Special Forces Officer, residing nearby, had heard 
the first explosion outside the Oberoi. 

An explosives specialist, Sunil said that he gauged by the sound that it 
involved low-grade explosives of about 10 kilograms, of the kind that can be 
packed into a fire extinguisher and set off with a mobile phone ring as a 

Other explosions were grenade attacks, the first of many across Mumbai. "The 
explosion in the Air India building in the 1993 bomb blast attacks was so loud 
the ground shook," remembers officer Sunil. "First you feel the building shake 
and then you hear the loud explosion." 

At this point security men asked us to move away from the area, particularly 
since I was wearing a white shirt and could be a sitting target at night for 

It was a terrible feeling of deja vu for officer Sunil, who, like me, had 
similarly raced out into the streets in Churchgate on midday on Friday, March 
12, 1993, to see a sea of glass shards amid dead, bleeding and dying bodies 
strewn around the Air India building, just a stone's throw the Oberoi. In that 
incident, a series of 13 blasts killed up to 250 people, with 700 injured. 
Fifteen years later, Mumbai has suffered more serial terrorist strikes. In the 
intervening years, the city has been the victim of bomb attacks, but it has 
never seen anything like the carnage of Wednesday night - it was pure and 
simple urban warfare. 

Mumbai has been attacked six times since 1993. The last major attack was in in 
2006 when 200 people were killed in attacks on the rail transit system. 

"This is a high-risk zone," said officer Sunil. "There could be delayed 
explosions." His prediction was correct; within 30 minutes, with gunfire and 
explosions had turned Mumbai into Baghdad. 

A black-suited Oberoi banquet manager was standing in a dark, nearly deserted 
lane opposite the outwardly silent hotel, staring up at the few lighted room 
windows. His hotel would be nearly empty of guests by the morning. 

The still surreal silence was broken occasionally by a rush of feet fleeing the 
hotel, or policemen crouching into firing positions near the hotel's perimeter, 
or warning onlookers to go away. "Fortunately, we had only one function 
tonight, in one banquet room out of the nine we have," the banquet manager 
said. "Otherwise, the causalities might have been higher." He said the hotel 
had about 45% occupancy.

"Two masked armed gunmen randomly fired from the ramp in the lobby," the Oberoi 
shopping mall manager standing nearby reported on his cell phone to a senior. 
"The Kandahar [restaurant[ is badly damaged, sir. No word of causalities." A 
pattern was emerging. Two-member teams of gunmen had fanned out across Mumbai, 
randomly firing into crowds and hurling grenades out of backpacks. 

Most of the targets were tourist-oriented, including railway stations and 
hospitals. Reports emerged of terrorists looking in particular for American and 
British guests at the Oberoi and Taj Mahal, two luxury landmarks and rated by 
Forbes and Conde Nast among the world's best business hotels. In a sense, 
Mumbai and India's economy was under attack. 

A young food and beverage trainee attending a roof-top party at the Oberoi had 
just escaped into the street, still panting, and reported seeing a Japanese 
guest shot in the hip. "Another guest said he had seen a man being shot dead 
before his eyes," he said. "We heard there is another explosion in Mazgaon 
Docks. We live near there and have to go." 

By 11.30 pm, when I met Thomas, Rita and Jesper near the Air India building 
facing the Arabian Sea, Marine Drive had turned into a Hollywood disaster movie 
set: ambulances, police vehicles, satellite TV vans, trucks of heavily armed 
soldiers rumbling into the zone and reporters screaming into their cell phones. 
Thomas and Rita were desperately trying to contact three missing crew members, 
not yet sure whether one of them had escaped alive out of the Leopold Cafe. 

Soldiers were moving into the Oberoi, seven grenade explosions rocked the Taj 
Mahal, India's first-ever five-star hotel, with its famous sea-facing dome on 
fire. Like other hotel guests, the Lufthansa crew were stranded outside for the 
night. Shipping company owner Jesper had experienced bullets flying near his 
head when he served as solder in a United Nations peacekeeping mission in 
Yugoslavia 13 years ago. 

"We were caught in the crossfire between Bosnians and Serbs," Jesper 
remembered. "But tonight was more terrifying because I had no gun to defend 
myself. Soldiers firing on soldiers in a war is easier to understand than 
civilians firing at other civilians." "This is my first visit to Mumbai and I 
like it," said Rita, who nearly lost her life in the Leopold Cafe and escaped 
being killed in the Oberoi in a night of terror that she and Mumbai will never 
forget. "But I don't want to come back here again." 

Lufthansa eventually picked up Rita, Thomas and Jesper in the morning and moved 
them to the Hyatt Residency near the airport. Flights out of Mumbai were 
expected to be full on Thursday. But Mumbai has so far refused to heed chief 
minister Vilasrao Deshmukh's advice to stay indoors. Office attendance is 
expected to be down, but suburban trains are running and the city is attempting 
to come out to work. For stoic, terrorist-battered Mumbai, work and life go on. 

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please 
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing )

Kirim email ke