An encounter with merchants of death

By Shyam Pandharipande, IANS,

Mumbai : Chandrakant Tikhe, 49, was among the very first whom terrorists stared in the face and commandeered to do their bidding that terrible Wednesday night.

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An eyewitness of the shootout in Cama Hospital, where he works as a liftman, Tikhe shared an account of his encounter with the merchants of death.

Two young terrorists, he said, stormed the government-run Cama Hospital in south Mumbai minutes after rampaging the crowded Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) with AK-47s and grenades.

“I was on the sixth floor of the hospital when the terrorists entered our premises through the narrow hind-gate after shooting down two watchmen guarding it. They climbed up the stairs following a doctor who ran scared hearing the gun-shots at the gate”, Tikhe told IANS in an interview.

Convalescing in the KEM Hospital following a vascular embolisation surgery, Tikhe said, he had the Cama Hospital staff close the main gate and the windows after hearing about the shootout at the CST hardly 15 minutes back.

“But the obscure hind-gate had inadvertently remained open which the two desperadoes accessed through a by-lane abutting the Times of India building,” Tikhe recalled.

The two young men in the age group of 22-25 carried strap bags stuffed with grenades on their backs and hid loaded rifles inside their robes. One of them was fair-complexioned and looked like a Nepali and the other was tall and dark-complexioned.

They neither wore caps nor did they cover their clean-shaven faces, Tikhe distinctly remembers.

“They saw me as they walked up straight to the sixth floor and the one looking like a Nepali asked me in chaste Hindi whether I was Hindu or Muslim. When I told them I was a Hindu, they trained their rifle at me, ordered me to turn my back and took away the mobile phone from my shirt pocket,” Tikhe said.

The terrorists ordered Tikhe at gun-point to lead their way all through the hospital.

“I tried to resist them but when they threatened to kill me, I acquiesced and started walking down the stairs ahead of them. It was just then that a police officer (additional police commissioner Sadanand Date) followed by five constables saw me as he was walking up.

“I whispered to the officer in Marathi that I was an employee and gestured to him that the two were following me at some distance. The officer told me I should duck when they open fire and challenged the terrorists.

“They ran up throwing a grenade in our direction and hid somewhere on the terrace. After a while, they hurled two more grenades when the police officer continued to fire in spite of suffering grievous grenade injuries. I lay writhing in pain along with the injured policemen while their leader soldiered on disregarding his bleeding wounds.

“The twosome then fled the place, perhaps climbing down a pipe,” Tikhe recalled, paying tributes to Date for saving the lives of hundreds of hospital inmates – it’s a hospital exclusively meant for women and children – and staff.

Tikhe is sure the two were the same terrorists who killed Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare, additional commissioner of police Ashok Kamte and inspector Vijay Salaskar minutes later.

He says so because the duo’s description given by the driver of an Ambassador car which the terrorists snatched from him matches completely with that given by him.

The terrorists had seized a police vehicle before abandoning it in favour of the ambassador car and Tikhe’s cell-phone they had snatched was later found in the police vehicle.