Mumbai: Thirty-three hours after it began, the hostage crisis in Mumbai seems to be headed for its final moment as National Security Guard (NSG) commandos on Friday morning dramatically slithered down ropes from two military helicopters to the roof of a five-storey building to flush out terrorists holed up there.
On the ground, almost 100 other commandos massed in the lane leading to the Nariman House, one of the three buildings seized by the terrorists on Wednesday night, and on adjacent rooftops provided covering fire in what seemed to the final decisive stage of the operation.
The first of the choppers arrived overhead at around 7:30 am and some six commandos, their ankles gripping the rope, slithered down to the roof of Nariman House with one hand, balancing their AK-56 assault rifles in the other.
A second helicopter arrived soon thereafter with another six commandos.
The force initially assembled on the roof of Nariman House before storming the building, where it is believed some six to eight hostages are still being held and six terrorists are still holed up. With the helicopters whirring protectively overhead, gunfire and explosions were heard as the commandos moved down the building.
Nariman House is a Jewish religious and residential complex and was one of three buildings the terrorists seized on Wednesday night.
Meanwhile, three explosions were heard at the Nariman House on Friday morning. Two explosions followed in quick succession around 2.30 am and a third was heard just before 5 am, even as snipers were taking position around the building.
As dawn broke in the nation's commercial capital on Friday, silence prevailed at two luxury hotels as commandos moved in to flush out gunmen who had unleashed the most audacious terror attack the country has witnessed, with at least 125 people already dead and 327 injured.
Commandos killed at least three gunmen at the Taj Intercontinental Hotel late on Thursday and were sweeping Hotel Trident Oberoi and the Jewish residential complex - Nariman House - in search of hostages and trapped people a day after terrorists stormed targets across southern Mumbai.
Occasional bursts of gunfire and explosions were heard from the Taj and the nearby Hotel Trident Oberoi as commandos from the NSG threw a ring around the two places and the Nariman Bhavan, a Jewish residential complex, to isolate a small number of gunmen holding hostages, foreigners included.
Latest reports say that two to three terrorists are still holed up inside the hotel. They have held 15 to 16 people hostage. "I think we will be able to mop up the operation there very quickly," said J K Dutt, Director General of the elite National Security Guards commandos.
Three suspected terrorists, including a Pakistani national, were arrested from the Taj hotel late Thursday night.
Union Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal told CNN-IBN earlier that terrorists had set up control centres inside the two hotels and the operation to flush them out would be over soon. Government sources say security forces are now preparing for a final assault.
Huge flames billowed from an upper floor of the Oberoi Trident HHotel, where about 200 people are trapped, after terrorists exploded grenades and set the roof on fire.
Dutt said two terrorists are still holed up in the eighth floor of the Oberoi but the Trident section of the hotel has been cleared.
"As far as Trident is concerned, we have been able to completely clean up and we do not have any report of any terrorist being holed up over there. As far as Oberoi is concerned, yes, we have engaged two terrorists on the eight floor," he said.
Reuters reports helicopters buzzed overhead and crowds cheered as the commandos, their faces blackened, moved into the Trident-Oberoi.
The NSG's fight against terrorists is "almost coming to an end", said Mumbai’s police chief Hassan Gafoor.
Around two dozen militants in their early 20s, armed with automatic rifles and grenades and carrying backpacks full of ammunition, had fanned out across Mumbai on Wednesday.
At least six foreign nationals and eight terrorists have been killed in the gun fights since Thursday night.
MUMBAI LIMPS BACK TO LIFE
The Bombay Stock Exchange is likely to reopen on Friday after being closed on Thursday even as the authorities struggle to cope with the longest hostage drama that is now being called India's 9/11.
Malls, cinema halls and schools will, however, remain shut for the second day on Friday.
(With inputs from PTI, IANS, AP and Reuters)