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Shootout amid Diwali shoppers

New Delhi, Nov. 3: Carrying an AK-47 and pistols in a black handbag, two militants drive quietly into the basement car park of the capital’s trendiest shopping centre. It’s the evening before Diwali and Ansal Plaza’s three floors are swarming with thousands of last-minute shoppers.

Another Akshardham — where militants opened fire on devotees — is about to happen. But this time a police team is lying in wait. Moments within the white Maruti, with the fake number plate DL8C B3241, rolling in, commandos of Delhi police’s anti-terrorist cell tell the private security guards manning the parking lot not to allow anyone to either enter or leave the basement.

The time is around 7.30 and the police team has been waiting since four. In the afternoon, a visiting Afghan delegation led by foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah had shopped at the plaza.

Getting out of the car — the number etched into the windshield showed it was from Uttar Pradesh — the militants attempt to climb up the staircase leading to the shopping floors from the lower basement. The police stop them to ask questions and the militants start firing on the run. After an encounter lasting 15 minutes in which 25 rounds are fired, both are killed and one policeman is injured.

Neeraj Kumar, the joint commissioner of police (special cell), said: “We had information of a Diwali-eve strike in some congested marketplace. We had specific information that it would be carried out either at South Extension or Ansal Plaza.”

Around 20-25 commandos in plain clothes were deployed to catch the militants, who, Kumar said, belonged to the pro-Pakistan Lashkar-e-Toiba. The police also said both were Pakistani nationals, but did not disclose how they had arrived at either of the two conclusions.

A Russian-made AK-47 rifle, two pistols, two loaded rifles, an equal number of Chinese-made pistol magazines and a map of Delhi with markets marked on it were recovered from the bodies of the militants.

Delhi police had been tailing the militants for 15 days following intelligence inputs about a strike by taking hostages and killing people in a repeat of the attack on the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar on September 24 when 32 people were killed.

No shopper was hurt in the shootout; most were not even aware of it. Business continued even after the shootout until the shoppers who were inside the complex cleared out after completing their purchases.

“Everything happened so fast that the shoppers hardly knew about the shootout in the basement, so there was no panic,” a police officer said.

One of the shoppers whose car was damaged in the shootout said he heard gunfire as he was about to reach his car in the sprawling parking lot. Alarmed that someone was trying to kill him, he dived to the ground and then heard a voice shouting at him to get out of the way as there was a militant attack.

He stumbled and crept out on all fours towards the lift, which takes shoppers to the lobby of Ansal Plaza. He found the lift was stuck upstairs. “The firing went on for about 20 minutes, stopped and then began again,” he said.

A rough estimate put the number of people at Ansal Plaza, which houses Shoppers’ Stop, McDonald’s, several music stores and restaurants and bars, at the time of the encounter at 5,000. John Rajan, of Shoppers’ Stop, said: “I had no idea anything had happened. It was around 8 o’clock that I was told there was an encounter.”

Intelligence officials said they were noticing a new method in militant operation. Instead of settling in the city before carrying out their mission, they were coming in to make the hit and get out. (Picture on Page 7)

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