A Shootout for Hostages at Nariman House

The men—the alleged terrorists—came by sea, on a small skiff, on Wednesday night. They made their way in the dark, through the narrow streets of old Colaba, to a yellow six-story apartment building called Nariman House, the center of Jewish life in Mumbai. A handful of them(nobody knew how many) had barricaded themselves inside. Had they taken hostages? Nobody seemed to know that, either.

What happened over the next 48 hours will be picked apart for weeks, perhaps months. What's certain is that Nariman House was ripped apart today by a huge explosion, killing everybody inside. For now, there are few answers and a big question: when and how did the soldiers who came to surround the building decide to risk a shootout with men who, it turned out, were heavily armed?

Nariman House is home to a local chapter of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a small sect of orthodox Jews who settle around the globe, sometimes looking to court Israelis adrift in the world; more often just practicing quietly. Locals said the owners are a Jewish Israeli family who rents out flats to other religious Jews. Some said there were five families inside; others said one. The building, less than a mile from the posh Taj Mahal Hotel, blends Escher-like into the working class neighborhood, where half-built houses sit beside old-fashioned colonial-era gems, and where Hindus, Muslims and Jews live together.

The Army was the first to arrive at the scene. They had rolled up to the nearby Taj Hotel hours earlier, sporting jungle camouflage and twigs affixed to their rounded helmets. They were bleary-eyed kids as confounded and disorganized as everyone else.

Within minutes of the attack, India's elite National Security Guard was dispatched from New Delhi. They arrived in Mumbai at 4am on Thursday, and by 7 am they had set up command posts around Nariman House. They were clad in black jumpsuits and balaclavas, and sported Rambo-style bow knives, Glock pistols and large, light, and powerful submachine guns.

As the commandos settled in, little information was available on who was still inside the building with the gunmen. Indian television referred to hostages without specifying a number, and on Thursday night at least two channels reported—falsely, it turns out—that all hostages had been released. Everyone on the street seemed to have a different view on the hostage situation and, if there were indeed any, what their condition was. Given that orthodox Jews were being held at gunpoint by mujahideen, it seemed unlikely there would be survivors.

A group of commandos quickly stationed themselves on a squalid rooftop 30 meters away and began to wait patiently. Slowly, a circus of politicians, journalists and cameramen gathered around them on the rooftop. No one checked IDs. The waiting was tense. A commando would look through his scope, photojournalists would raise their cameras—click click click—and then the commando would lower his scope again.

Methodically, meditatively, the commandos watched. The windows to Nariman had been blown out, so the curtains to the bedrooms swayed in the wind, occasionally providing a view of a wrecked interior, with no sign of life. "If you do something wrong, those human rights [people] will come and have our necks," said a stocky, mustachioed commando. "So we have to be careful about all these things." He gives a boyish smile and shrugs before returning to his high-powered scope.

Throughout the siege, crowds grew around Nariman House, jostling for a glimpse. Every hour or so the police would clear the street, and people would fill back into the spaces along the alleys, lanes, rooftops and roads. Less than a mile away, smoke steadily rose from the Taj—now easily Mumbai's most famous hotel. Locals who would normally be out fishing in the Arabian Sea are busy guiding police, soldiers and commandos through the labyrinthine alleyways.

Suddenly a grenade came rolling out of Nariman House and exploded, sending everyone diving for cover.

As Thursday afternoon dragged on, curious neighbors started to pop their heads out of windows. Journalists who had been up all night closed their eyes briefly. At 4pm, 30 more commandos joined police officers in the street. The commandos on the roof conferred. Journalists, thinking a raid was imminent, jostled for the space. Nothing happened.

A helicopter flew by and everyone looked up. It made another low, slow pass; this time nobody looked. Cats danced along the tiled roofs, aloof and uninterested in the surrounding drama.

Occasionally the commandos on the rooftop took a break for chai. They refused to give their names, but cited their involvement in a famous mosque siege in the state of Gujarat as a kind of identification. The 10-by 20-foot rooftop can be unbearably claustrophobic. It was now starting to get very crowded. Three men in olive uniforms brought up a floodlight against the encroaching darkness, which added a surreal, Bollywood quality to the standoff. A gaggle of local strongmen, their white shirts draped over large paunches, closed in tight to photograph the commandos with expensive camera phones.

As a gorgeous sunset gave sway to the incandescent glow of the streetlights, four men from the army set up a night vision device the size of a small telescope. I asked the mustachioed commando what he wanted to do. "Shoot" he said. "Shoot and finish." The siege, however, lasted all night.

Friday couldn't have been more different from Thursday. Just after sunrise, a helicopter deposited 20 commandos onto the roof of Nariman House. People sensed an end was near. But how near? And what of the hostages? With the police not giving out information rumors ran wild.

After hours of quiet, the afternoon stillness was punctured by the sound of an exploding grenade, followed by a volley of small arms fire aimed through the fourth-floor window, some rounds hitting the walls and window sills. Smoke, or tear gas, wafted from the side windows.

Gunfire could be heard from multiple directions, lasting about 10 minutes.

A pattern started to emerge. A volley of rounds from pistols, machine guns and sniper rifles, almost all from the Indian commandos, lasted about 10 or 20 minutes, and was followed by a half-hour of silence. A local businessman whose large residential development is opposite Nariman House bemoaned the effect the violence will have on his business. Although parts of Bombay have seen crime and shoot-outs from underworld activities, "this part of Bombay has never ever seen this kind of disturbance," he said. "This is a very secure area." Or so it was.

As evening approached the commandos entered the fifth-floor apartment from the roof and draped a red flag in the window—some kind of signal, perhaps, to their comrades. That's when it became clear they don't have radios. To communicate they would either speak in-person or use their cell phones.

The sniper teams continued shooting into the fourth floor—where the gunmen and hostages were expected to be holed up—shooting through broken glass and faded cream-colored curtains. Close to five in the afternoon the commandos fired a succession of rockets into the fourth floor, taking out what little remained to obscure the view into the flat. The building's upper walls are now thoroughly pockmarked and soot-covered.

Commandos could be seen walking around the first floor, and moving around the stairwell. They leaned over the roof and shot down, into the windows. More explosions and small arms fire could be heard.

At 5:30 pm the fourth floor of Nariman House exploded, rocking all of south Bombay and sending nearby journalists to the ground. Locals suspected that the gunmen detonated a quantity of RDX, a compound used in making bombs. Incredibly, gunmen were apparently still alive inside: Commandos entered the flat, emptying ammunition clips in quick succession.

As darkness drew near, floodlights once again illuminated the side of the building. But now there was no more waiting. The last gunman had been killed.

What was an occasional collective cheer from a crowd on the street below crescendoed into something louder and more uncontrolled. The street filled with throngs of people, cheering and chanting: 'India is free' and 'long live mother India.'

An hour after the smoldering building was turned into a shell of its former self, Yochi Turgeman, the Israeli embassy's defense attaché, met with eight young Israelis who had flown to India that morning. "The operation is over, but we don't know the fate of the hostages," said Turgeman. He joined up with members of ZAKA, an outfit tasked with mopping up blood and body parts from scenes of suicide attacks in Israel and preparing the remains for a proper Jewish burial. Not long after sunset, at the start of the Jewish Sabbath, came the announcement that five hostages were found dead inside Nariman House.