First Views From Inside the Taj

November 28, 2008

mumbai_toutAs Mumbai’s hostage drama stretched toward the end of its second full day, Time got an exclusive look at what is happening inside the Taj hotel, where it appears that the confrontation is drawing to a close. At 3:15PM local time, a massive blast went off inside the hotel, loud enough to startle the hundreds of journalists gathered at the security cordon hundreds of yards behind the hotel. An officer who ran out of the hotel, carrying a pistol, said, “Now everything is burned. The stairs are burned. The woodwork is all spoiled.� What did this blast mean? “They are getting desperate,” the officer said. “You can tell by their actions.”

The officer reported that the commandos have trapped three terrorists on the top floor on the hotel. The rest of the suspects were on the ground floor, but he was not sure how were in the building altogether, estimating between seven and ten. When asked whether they were trying to take any of them alive, he almost smiled at the question. “If they’re alive, it’s just coincidence.”

The Taj is a beloved landmark in this city, and its residents will have to get used to the idea of a Taj that will never be the same. Disbelieving Mumbaikars have been watching as their city of 12 million has been paralyzed — shops closed, streets emptied — by just two dozen attackers. How could this happen? The unwelcome truth is that this grand, cosmopolitan city, one that has survived two even deadlier terrorists bombings in 2003 and 2006, was caught completely unprepared.

The scale and sophistication of the attacks, which began at about 9:30 p.m. local time as gunmen stormed hotels with AK-47s and grenades, became clear on Thursday: central government authorities say there are 125 dead, including six foreigners, and 327 injured. The injured were brought to local hospitals from the sites of the attacks, which included two luxury hotels, the main railway terminus, a cafe and two hospitals. Among the police, 14 were killed, and 25 injured. The Maharashtra chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, estimates that there were 20 to 25 terrorists involved, seven of them now dead. (See photos of the chaos in Mumbai)

Unlike most of the recent simultaneous bomb attacks in India, this one continued to do its damage after the initial shock wore off, gathering strength and changing form as the smoke and noise from the blasts themselves cleared. In this case, the attackers turned hostage takers at three of the sites: the two hotels and a residential building called Nariman House. By the end of the day Thursday, at least 20 to 30 hostages were still being held at the Oberoi-Trident hotel; five hostages at Nariman House had been killed and the rest released; and 470 people — including hostages and people who had been stranded in the hotel after the police moved in-have been evacuated from the Taj Palace. Police late on Thursday confirmed that the situation at the Oberoi is much more serious than initially thought. They are preparing for a siege through the night.

Those stranded in hotels might have had a shorter ordeal if the hotel management had put into place at least some kind of emergency plan in case of a terrorist attack. About 100 people, including one man with a gunshot wound, took refuge in a conference center at the Taj when they heard shooting but were left there all night, with no communication from anyone, let alone any instructions on how to exit the building safely.

Hotel managers at the Taj are given some crisis management training but nothing that would prepare them for a situation in which the attackers were running “free and loose” inside the hotel, says Anupam Amrohi, 23, an employee of Taj hotels in Bangalore. Amrohi was on the phone with his friends trapped inside the conference center all night. “They should have pulled the alarm,” he says. Instead, hotel staff advised people already inside to stay where they were. People in their rooms were told to stay put even after the firing between the police and the suspects began. Hotel operators would call them periodically to remind them to keep the lights off and the volume on the TV down.

The lack of any prior local police intelligence about the attacks — a complaint voiced by many Mumbaikars today — is particularly alarming given the meticulous planning and unusual modus operandi of the attackers. For example, an Indian Navy spokesman confirmed that the terrorists entered Mumbai without detection by taking a sea route. Starting from a base in Gujarat to the north of Mumbai, they made their way to the Gateway of India at Mumbai’s southern tip, and another landing point on the peninsula 14 nautical miles away; they killed one boatman in the process.

The attack on the Leopold Cafe and Restaurant also shows intimate local knowledge. Like the Oberoi and Taj, it is a favorite of foreigners, mostly backpackers and fans of the bestselling novel Shantaram, in which the Leopold is a key setting. Coming out from the Leopold, a hard RIGHT takes you into a narrow lane, which leads directly to the back entrance of the Taj Hotel. Several people in the Apna Bidi Shop around the corner from the Leopold reported that at about 9:30 p.m. last night, immediately after the blasts, they saw two of the attackers with AK-47s running from the Leopold into the narrow lane that leads to the Taj. Either the terrorists were natives to the city, or they had time to practice, prepare and carefully plot their targets and the path they would take between them.

As the three simultaneous hostage dramas began to unfold, onlookers gathered. “It’s like watching 24 in slow motion,” says Vineet Pandit, 22, who lives near the Oberoi. What they would see at each of these sites was a parade of hundreds of uniformed troops over the course of several hours: from the Mumbai police, the Indian army and paramilitary groups including the Rapid Action Force and the National Security Guard’s elite “Black Cat” Commandos, distinctive in their all-black uniforms. It was not always clear who was in charge. At the Taj, police officers waited idly in their Jeeps as 100 army personnel tried to take control of the hotel. At the Oberoi, the police commissioner appeared to be taking the lead.

In Colaba Market, a handful of terrorists stormed one of the apartment buildings at about 10 pm on Wednesday night, and then began randomly shooting and lobbing grenades into the street and at neighboring buildings, according to residents of the area. From the vantage point of three Black Cat snipers watching the building, I could see Nariman House’s shattered windows. The couple who own the building are Jewish, giving rise to rumors throughout the day that “Israelis” were somehow involved in the attacks. The other people in the building, including an infant wearing a pink bonnet and green blanket, were held as hostages but released early Thursday. The last person to leave, a young woman, told authorities that the only remaining hostages were the couple, who had made no sound or movement since the night before. By 5 p.m., they were presumed to be dead, and the Black Cat commandos moved in a half hour later unleashing a volley of gunshots into the building. By 9:30 p.m. local time, the firing was still going on and it was not clear whether the four to five suspects inside had been killed or captured.

So who are the terrorists? That too is unclear. A group calling itself the “Deccan Mujahideen” sent an email to news organizations early Thursday morning claiming responsibility for the attacks. Two of the terrorists spoke to a local news channel, India TV, to air their grievances: “When so many of us were killed, who did anything for us?” a man called Shadullah asked, referring to anti-Muslim riots in northern India in 1992 and 1993. He said he was among seven people holding hostages at the Oberoi but didn’t make any specific demands, other than for the release of other “mujahideen” jailed in India and for an end to the persecution of Muslims. He did not reveal where the group comes from, though the Deccan in its name presumably refers to the plateau that stretches across southern India.

Officals have hinted that there may have been a foreign power involved, rejecting the widespread belief among defense and political analysts that there is an able network of homegrown terrorists in India. (Major General R.K. Hooda, an army officer who was the commander for today’s military operations, hinted that their accents might have been Pakistani.) So far there has been little more than hints and platitudes from the steady stream of high-profile visitors to south Mumbai: the local strongman Raj Thackeray, Maharashtra state chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, member of parliament Murli Deora. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi are said to be on their way to the city, as is opposition BJP leader L.K. Advani. The question is, will they do anything to better prepare this city, and the rest of India, for the next time?

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