Mumbai: A handful of heavily-armed militants continued to hold out Saturday as Indian security forces went into action to end the country's longest terror drama that has killed 148 people and has cast a shadow on India-Pakistan relations.
Plumes of thick, black smoke billowed out of the ground floor windows at the hotel's northern end as two retail outlets were torched, even as some 200 commandos from the National Security Guard (NSG), the Indian Army and the Indian Navy launched a calibrated attack against the militants, who are believed to number anywhere from two to six.
If the militants viewed this as a diversionary tactic they almost succeeded as the acrid smoke soon covered much of the building's faĆ§ade but the fire brigade quickly swung into action to douse the angry flames.
The first indication that the authorities intended to go in for the kill came at around 3.30 a.m., when, after a comparative lull of two hours, NSG commandos initially targeted the militants, who had seized the hotel Wednesday night in coordinated strikes that also saw them taking over the Oberoi-Trident hotel and a Jewish cultural and religious centre.
A group of six to seven strategically positioned commandos targeted a first-floor window at the northern end of the building where, eyewitnesses said, at lest one militant had been cornered.
Other commandos, meanwhile, sprinted toward a corridor linking the new tower of the hotel with its heritage wing where the action was taking place to gain access to the first floor and mount pressure on the militants.
As dawn broke, commandos from the army and the navy joined the offensive and this signalled the start of the decisive phase of the action.
There was, however, some uncertainty on the exact number of militants in the hotel.
On Friday, Lt. Gen. Noble Thamburaj, the general officer commanding-in-chief of the Southern Command, had placed the number at one, after two others had been killed in a firefight Thursday. NSG chief J.K. Dutt initially agreed with this but Saturday revised the figure to two or three.
M.L. Kumwat, the special secretary (Internal Security) in the home ministry, had Friday placed the number at six.
Landing by boat in the Colaba area of south Mumbai, a group of 20-22 militants had spread mayhem in Mumbai, staging 10 attacks at various spots in India's commercial capital that have killed 148 people and injured 327. The casualties include eight foreigners, while another 22 have been injured.
The NSG, acting in tandem with their Marco marine commandos and Indian Army troops had Friday scored major successes, evicting the militants first from the Oberoi-Trident hotel and then from the Jewish centre. Two militants were killed in each operation.
Totally, 11 of the militants have so far been killed, while one has been captured. The whereabouts of the others are not clear.
Close to 480 NSG commandos had participated in the operation at the Jewish centre and the bulk of them were shifted to the Taj hotel once that operation ended.
Both were expected to quickly go into action as both Thamburaj and Dutt had Friday promised that the Taj would be rid of the remaining terrorists by evening. However, as the shadows lengthened, it became apparent that the NSG chief was carefully weighing all his options.
"My men have taken position, but if the terrorists change their positions, we too have to," he explained late Friday after reconnoitring the Taj hotel complex.
"My officers and men are coping well with the situation," he added.
In an unprecedented development, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani to send his country's spy chief to New Delhi to exchange information about the Mumbai terror, official sources said. Pakistan agreed.
Officials in Islamabad initially said Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, was expected to travel to India early next week.
However, a report in a Pakistani newspaper Saturday said Pasha's representative would instead travel to New Delhi.