Despair and joy in the battle for Mumbai hostages
As Indian commandos stormed the hotels and a Jewish centre, they found survivors – and the victims of a bloody massacre. By Andrew Buncombe and Richard Orange.
Five hostages held by gunmen in a Jewish community centre, including a rabbi and his wife, were found dead last night after commandos killed two militants and stormed the building, all but bringing to an end Mumbai's ordeal of terror and violence.
Local people broke out in celebratory cheers after the commandos emerged from the besieged centre, their rifles raised in a sign of victory. However, Indian and Israeli officials who entered the building confirmed that none of the hostages who had been held since Wednesday evening had survived. The circumstances of how they were killed was unclear.
The storming of the community centre, located in the Colaba Market neighbourhood of south Mumbai, effectively brought to an end the security forces' operations against the militants.
Earlier in the day, commandos entered the Trident-Oberoi hotel, killing two militants and freeing 143 guests, including several Britons, who had been barricaded inside their rooms. Officials said that 24 bodies had been found in the hotel. "The hotel is under our control," Jyoti Krishna Dutt, director general of the country's National Security Guard commando unit, told reporters.
Mark Abell, one of the Britons released, emerged from the hotel with a broad smile on his face. He, like the others released, had locked himself in his room as soon as gunmen overran the building. "I'm going home," he said. "I'm going to see my wife."
Meanwhile, at the Taj Mahal hotel, security officials said last night they believed that "three or four" gunmen remained inside the building, holed up in a ballroom. Crackles of sporadic gunfire and explosions could still be heard coming from the hotel, but the Indian authorities believed there were no more hostages trapped inside. Security forces surrounding the hotel stepped up their operations with the use of grenades in an effort to kill those militants still holding out.
One gunman "is moving in two floors. There is a dance floor area where apparently he has cut off all the lights," said Lieutenant-General N Thamburaj. "It's just a matter of a few hours that we'll be able to wrap up things." One senior commando said he had seen at least 50 bodies inside the 565-room hotel, including 15 in one room alone. This would push the death toll even higher.
Last night the death toll stood at more than 150 with close to 400 others injured. It was reported that 22 of the dead were foreigners. In the coming days, however, attention will focus on the perpetrators and their modus operandi for carrying out what was, to all intents, a suicide mission.
After the taking of the Jewish centre Mr Dutt told reporters: "On the second floor, we found three bodies of hostages. They had been killed long before. We found two terrorists on the fourth floor and neutralised them. We also found two bodies of hostages there."
The Jewish centre had been run by Rabbi Gabriel Holtzberg, 29, originally from New York, and his 26-year-old wife, Rivka. They had arrived in Mumbai five years ago, dispatched by the ultra-Orthodox Chabad Lubavitch organisation, and had become popular members of the local community.
Their two-year-old son, Moshe, was rescued on Thursday by the couple's maid and taken to safety. It was understood he had been taken into the care of his grandparents, who flew to Mumbai.
In New York, the organisation issued a statement, saying: "Gabi and Rivka Holtzberg made the ultimate sacrifice. [They] gave up the comforts of the West in order to spread Jewish pride in a corner of the world that was a frequent stop for throngs of Israeli tourists."
Yesterday evening, officials from the Israeli medical emergency organisation Zaka, tasked with collecting the remains of Orthodox Jews, entered the community centre.
Meanwhile outside, crowds cheered the end of the siege, chanting "Jai Hind" and offering prayers to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god popular in Mumbai. "They are praising their god because he has brought us victory over the terrorists," said one local resident.
Earlier in the day, commandos could be seen abseiling from ropes thrown from helicopters on to the roof of the community centre where they set up positions. Throughout the day, gunfire and explosions could be heard as police snipers and militants exchanged fire. It is understood that the commandos were trying to use stun grenades to dislodge the gunmen. However, in the evening, a large explosion rang out, marking the commandos' decision to use explosives to storm the building.
By that point, the commandos had presumably reached the conclusion that there was no chance of saving the hostages, or else that they were already dead.