By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 20, 2008
NEW DELHI, Sept. 19 -- Two suspected bombers were shot dead during a dramatic midmorning gun battle in the capital city Friday when authorities raided an alleged hideout of men who carried out last week's serial bombings that killed 23 people.
One police officer died and several others were badly injured in the 11 a.m. operation, which put an already rattled city back on edge. A third suspect was captured, and two others managed to escape, police said.
One of the dead suspects was identified only as Atif; police said he took a lead role in the Delhi blasts and bombings in three other cities this year. He was allegedly a close associate of Abdul Subhan Qureshi, alias Tauqeer, a computer expert and member of a controversial Islamic students' group.
Authorities said they had received a tip that the house in the Muslim Jamia Naga neighborhood was used as a den for members of the Indian Mujahideen. The group asserted responsibility for the Sept. 13 blasts in New Delhi, as well as serial bombings in the western city of Ahmedabad on July 26, which killed about 50 people, and the May 13 bombing in the northern tourist city of Jaipur, which left up to 80 people dead.
The government has come under increasing pressure during an election year to curb the attacks, which have grown more frequent. This week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that there were "vast gaps" in intelligence and announced that the government would be recruiting thousands more police officers and establishing a new counterterrorism center.
Singh said that Indians, not foreigners, may have been behind the New Delhi attacks. It was a departure from the blame that authorities usually pin on Pakistan- or Bangladesh-based militant groups.
The Indian Mujahideen was little known before this year's bombings. Some police say it could be a front for the Students' Islamic Movement of India, or SIMI, which was banned in 2001, but most intelligence experts say there is insufficient information to understand the group's role.
Television talk shows celebrated Friday's operation as a big win for police. But many commentators pointed out that previous arrests of radical leaders have not stopped attacks or led to convictions.
"In the 11 major blasts since 2001, the police have not been able to get a single proper conviction," Rajdeep Sardesai, editor in chief of the popular IBN network, wrote in a commentary in the Hindustan Times. "Arrests are made of the usual suspects, months later they are let off because of the shocking lack of any proper evidence."
Witnesses told reporters that policemen armed with automatic rifles and pistols surrounded the suspects' apartment, located next to a mosque, just before Friday prayers. Hundreds of women and children fled when the gun battle began.
Police recovered an AK-47 assault rifle and two pistols along with wooden frames and other components that were similar to materials used in the small bombs that exploded in the capital last week, Delhi Police Chief Y.S. Dadwal said.
The dead policeman was identified as a high-ranking special forces officer, Mohan Chand Sharma, 44.
Some Muslims in the neighborhood chanted anti-government slogans. Muslims make up about 130 million of India's 1.1 billion people, and there are sporadic bouts of violence with the majority Hindu communities.