Mumbai, March 29: Three Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists, suspected of having a hand in the Nadimarg massacre of 24 Kashmiri Pundits, were today shot dead in an encounter by a Mumbai police team.
The militants — two Pakistanis and an Indian — were gunned down outside the Mahananda Dairy on the Western Express Highway, near Goregaon, as they were speeding in a silver-coloured car towards the suburb of Borivli.
Though the police claimed all the militants were “brought down”, sources and some eyewitness said two militants managed to escape.
Top police officials, who dubbed the operation “one of the biggest” in recent times, said the militants may have also been involved in the Mulund train blast of March 13.
The bomb, hidden in a luggage rack of a ladies’ compartment, was set off by a timer, killing 12 on the spot and injuring more than 70.
The police have identified two of the slain militants as Abu Sultan, reportedly the Lashkar’s “southern commander”, and Abu Anwar Ali. The identity of the third is being ascertained.
The police, who laid a trap for the three, said they first asked the armed men to surrender and opened fire only when Abu Sultan and his accomplices fired around 20 rounds at the crime branch team. The badly injured militants were rushed to a hospital where they were declared brought dead.
The police team recovered an AK-56 rifle and two automatic pistols from the militants. Rs 4 lakh was also reportedly found in a bag carried by them.
Initial investigations after the Mulund blast had pointed a finger at the Students’ Islamic Movement of India and the Lashkar.
Senior policemen involved in today’s operation said investigators would probe the trio’s involvement in the Mulund blast and the three preceding blasts that shook Mumbai in the last four months.
The police would also try to ascertain the reason for the Lashkar militants’ presence in the city because they fear the three could have been planning another sabotage.
“They were equipped with a car and ammunition and could have been planning another series of explosions in the city and elsewhere,’’ a police source said.
According to Mumbai police commissioner R.S. Sharma, the crime branch was trailing the militants for the past few days after being tipped off that the trio was planning to gather in Goregaon in preparation for an attack.
“But it was difficult to pinpoint them as they were constantly changing their names, residences and modes of travelling,’’ Sharma said.
A senior police officer said: “The militants appear to be quite senior as only top militants are addressed as ‘Abu’.” Both Sultan and Ali were senior commanders in the Lashkar, he said.
Security has now been stepped up in and around Mumbai. Checkpoints have been set up again and additional forces rushed to sensitive locations such as the Mantralaya, airports, major temples and other important public places.