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Former NSG chief recounts his encounter with terrorism

Last updated on: November 20, 2009 19:05 IST

Image: National Security Guard commandos at the opening of their new hub in Mumbai
Photographs: Punit Paranjpe/Reuters

The elite National Security Guard was under pressure to use gas to neutralise the heavily armed Lashkar-e-Tayiba terrorists during the Mumbai terror attacks last year, but the idea was shot down for fear of repeat of another Russian theatre disaster.

J K Dutt, who then headed the NSG and the operations in the two luxury hotels -- Taj and Trident -- and the Jewish centre in Mumbai in 2008, dreaded the use of gas because he did not want casualties to rise, as the numbers could have been more than what the terrorists would have caused.

Dutt feared a repeat of the 2002 Moscow theatre hostage crisis, when the Russian forces had used an unknown chemical agent into the crowded theatre where about 40-50 armed Chechens held over 850 hostages.

While the forces killed about 40 attackers, the toxic substance, aimed at subduing the Chechenyan rebels, killed about 130 hostages.

"...But inside a hotel (Taj), when people are inside a room, if gas is let, how does one know that there are no heart patients, asthma patients and children inside? I may be causing more casualties than the terrorists."

In fact, if you surf the Internet and look at one of the incidents that occurred in Russia... it had disastrous effects," Dutt said in an exclusive interview to PTI, recalling the horror that started on the night of November 26, a year ago.

Dutt said he was sure that he was not going to use gas because he was not going to let any innocent life be lost.

'We were sure to get a upper hand'

Image: NSG commandos; Inset: Former NSG chief J K Dutt
Photographs: Kamal Kishore/ Reuters

Describing the circumstances in which his force fought the eight determined terrorists holed up inside the three buildings, Dutt said he had received a number of SMSes from the public during the operation, and also a few suggestions from his own colleagues.

"Why don't you introduce some sort of a gas through the air conditioning system?" some of them had him.

Sixty-year-old Dutt, who retired from service in February this year, said the use of gas was "OK" if it was a small area or when an unlawful assembly of 100 or 200 people had to be dispersed.

He wanted to make sure that his men did their job in a professional way.

"In the course of the operation, even if we were advancing gradually, the fact was that we were sure to get the upper hand," Sutt said about the NSG strategy.

Dutt, who had served in the West Bengal police and had a stint in the Central Bureau of Investigation before heading the 8,000-strong anti-terror force for over two years, said there was no need for him to do something that could have resulted in greater number of casualties.

"We have had hostage situations which have lasted over a year. It happened in an embassy for a year. They were rescued. We have had so many operations, which have lasted for over seven days to 15 days. And, as I said, look at the situation and the scenario the NSG was facing," he said.

'We had to check 400 rooms'

Image: A commando outside Taj hotel during the attacks
Photographs: Sanjay Sawant

Virtually giving a blow-by-blow account of the operation at Taj hotel, Dutt said, "This is the first time that we had such an incident in a hotel, where there were 400 rooms and each room had to be checked, each floor had to be checked."

"We didn't have the hotel plan, and then in a subtle way, there was a multiplier effect about the number of terrorists," Dutt recalled.

Asked which of the three operations proved to be the most challenging, he said the degree of difficulty was almost the same everywhere.

"What happened at Oberoi did not happen at Taj. It happened in Taj in a different way... In Taj, before the NSG came, they (terrorist) had chased some of these persons (guests) to the kitchen. They had chased some of them even towards the chambers, which is an exclusive club, and there they shot down people," he said.

'Terrorists relaxed as our firemen worked'

Image: A burning Taj hotel on November 29, 2008
Photographs: Arko Datta/ Reuters

The former NSG chief, who is now penning his experiences, said in the case of Trident hotel, the terrorists had taken a number of guests as hostages, who were later shot point-blank after being taken to the topmost floor of the high-rise.

He said the terrorists also used diversionary tactics to dodge the NSG commandos by setting various parts of the Taj hotel on fire.

"Whenever they (terrorists) came under pressure, they would set fire to the curtain and as a result of this, there was an apprehension that the fire might spread and destroy the entire hotel. So we had to immediately put the fire brigade into service," he said.

Dutt said the terrorists were using the time taken by the firemen to douse flames to rest and change their positions.

"Have you ever thought why the terrorists did not shoot at the firemen? While they (firemen) put out the fire, the terrorists used the time to get some respite. Had they shot the firemen, the situation would have come to shooting and shooting (continuous firing).

"As the firemen were working, they (terrorists) would either change their positions or rest or would re-load their weapons," he said.

'We didn't have the number of terrorists'

Image: NSG commandos at Nariman House during the attacks
Photographs: Punit Paranjpe/Reuters

Dutt said unlike hostage situations in other countries in the past, where the security agencies knew how many attackers were around, "over here, no one was able to give us the numbers".

He said the total number of terrorists they had taken into account varied between 10 and 30.

"In the end, when the shooting had stopped, I asked for the number of terrorists I would to count for. I was told by none less than the director of the Intelligence Bureau that I would have to account for 10 AK-47s.

"Out of these 10, Kasab's weapons had already been recovered. One terrorist was killed by the Mumbai police, we had got two of them in Oberoi, and another two in Nariman House and three at the Taj -- one body had fallen out of the window while two other bodies were fallen near the staircase," he said.

Dutt was worried about the 10th weapon and hence asked his men to go around the Taj hotel very carefully, although the shooting had stopped.

It was only later, when the dog squad was pressed into service, that one of the canines sniffed out the 10th AK-47 from under the rubble.

'Mumbai was chosen for its glamour'

Image: Mumbai residents congratulate an NSG commando after the operation was completed
Photographs: Reuters

"There were also talks about terrorists having checked into the hotel rooms. So, (we were suspecting if) there could be a few more (terrorists). There could have been a terrorist who was trying to escape posing as a guest."

In the conversations between the terrorists, they were told that there were members of Parliament and senior bureaucrats and that they could take anyone among them as a hostage.

"I was getting inputs of conversations between the terrorists. 'Make your demands and take safe passage' said the terrorists' commander," he said, adding that if they had the actual number of terrorists they would have been shot them down earlier.

Even as Dutt's men proceeded from floor to floor, they did not know whether they face the terrorists in the main building or the other one, as both Taj and Trident had two separate wings.

Dutt said the attack was organised to get maximum publicity and Mumbai was chosen because as it was the "glamour city".

"Mumbai was selected not because of the weakness of the security forces or their strength. Mumbai is the financial capital of India. It is a happening city.

"It is the place where you have all the glamour, where you have the filmstars, where the very famous and rich people stay. That is the kind of place where you find the press covering each and every event. So it has its publicity value as well," he said.
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