Terrorist attack on heart of world's biggest democracy

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The Independent Online

The lumbering Hindustan Ambassador painted white with a red light on the top and a parliamentary pass stuck to the window looked like the typical vehicle of an Indian VIP.

The lumbering Hindustan Ambassador painted white with a red light on the top and a parliamentary pass stuck to the window looked like the typical vehicle of an Indian VIP.

Every day hundreds of that type drive through a high- security cordon to the entrance of the parliament building in the centre of Delhi to drop off or collect Members of Parliament.

But the five men crammed into the vehicle yesterday, one a human bomb with explosives strapped to his waist, were intent on carrying out a terrorist spectacular in the heart of the world's biggest democracy. The squad's mission was to shoot guards dead at a little-used side entrance to the parliament building – gate 11 – and then sprint just 50 metres down a corridor into the main chamber where a debate had not long finished.

Hundreds of MPs and their aides were still milling around in the chamber of the upper house, easy targets for terrorists armed with AK47s and grenades. India's Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had been due to appear there for members' questions and may have been their target.

The squad failed to penetrate the building's security or kill Mr Vajpayee. But they still managed to commit India's most devastating terrorist attack since the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi a decade ago when he was Prime Minister, in the process rocking Delhi and goading some Indians into calling for strikes against Pakistan.

Indians are used to terrorist outrages in the disputed province of Kashmir. A suicide attack in October by a group linked to al-Qa'ida left 38 dead at Srinigar's Assembly building.

Attacks in the capital are rare but this one was captured by television crews, who were on hand to cover parliamentary proceedings and recorded the assault when it began at 11.45am. The occupants of the Ambassador began firing at the police guards and hurling grenades as departing MPs scrambled for cover.

TV pictures showed bloody corpses lying on the steps outside the elegant Raj-era building, which hosted the official handover of power to an independent India in 1947.

Police and terrorists manoeuvred for position in the firefight and the pictures were broadcast over and over again with a horrified nation glued to its television screens. The terrorists, wearing stolen Indian army commando uniforms, laid siege for 30 minutes. Inside shaken legislators struggled to evacuate the building.

Outside there were explosions and gunsmoke drifted across the immaculately trimmed lawns. The doomed raiders fought to the death against a backdrop of flowers and fountains.

Elite Black Cat commandos had to be called in to track down at least one assailant, who survived for more than an hour. He and his four colleagues were all among the final death toll, as were five police officers, an MP's bodyguard and a gardener, named only as Deshraj, who was caught in the crossfire.

One MP, Najma Heptulla, was yards away in her office when the assault began. She said: "At first I thought somebody was letting off firecrackers. Then we realised it was firing, and it was very close. There are bullet holes inside the building. My personal security man, Jagdish Yadav, ran outside to chase them and he was killed.

"But none of the MPs were frightened. We are used to terrorism here. People just evacuated calmly, but my God it was close," she said.

Soon afterwards, while disposal squads were defusing two bombs left in the Ambassador and army units with heavy machine-guns took up positions to seal off the area, the calls started for retaliation against terrorists and against Pakistan, blamed in India as the assailants' sponsor.

Raghubir Singh, a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), asked: "Where is the doubt? What is there to prove?" Fellow BJP member Srichand Kripalani added: "The government should do what America has done in Afghanistan and what Israel is doing in Palestine. The government should not shy away from attacking Pakistan, if involvement is proved."

The country's leaders were also making belligerent noises as they sought to soothe the nation's shattered nerves. L K Advani, the Home Minister, promised the group behind the attack would "pay dearly" and George Fernandes, the Defence Minister, warned: "We are capable of dealing with any situation which may be created by Pakistan."

The option of hot pursuit into Pakistan, and strikes on alleged terrorist training bases on the other side of the disputed border, was the favourite among the crowds who gathered to gape outside the parliament in the wake of the attack.

Pramod Singh, an onlooker, said: "It's high time India crossed the Line of Control. We want to see the same action by the Indian government as we have seen by the Americans. Terrorism is a global menace. Why should our hands be tied?"