Search on for South Africans in Mumbai

There were an unspecified number of South Africans staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, one of the sites of attacks by militant gunmen, vice-consul of the SA consulate in Mumbai, Rehaan Ebrahim, told the Mail and Guardian Online on Thursday afternoon.

Ebrahim said he had not heard of any SA casualties, though an unspecified number were still unaccounted for.

”At the moment we are compiling a list of all South Africans in Mumbai. We’re appealing to their families in South Africa to make contact with them and urge them to get in touch with the consulate.

The Indian government has declared it a ”wartime emergency situation”, Ebrahim added.

He said the streets in Mumbai were deserted at 4pm GMT on Thursday and a curfew was in force.

Gunmen target foreigners
A succession of three loud blasts were heard in south Mumbai early on Thursday amid media reports that an operation was under way against armed militants belonging to a little-known group, the Deccan Mujahedeen.

Local media said one explosion was at the Taj Mahal hotel, another at the Trident/Oberoi Hotel and another at Nariman House, where Jewish rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg was seized.

The young gunmen, armed with assault rifles and grenades, who roamed the corridors of the luxury hotels were shooting wildly, but they knew exactly what sort of guests they intended to take hostage.

”They told everybody to stop and put their hands up and asked if there were any British or Americans,” Alex Chamberlain, a British guest at the Oberoi/Trident Hotel, said after fleeing his captors via a fire escape.

”My friend said to me, ‘don’t be a hero, don’t say you are British’.”

Chamberlain told Indian television that he and other guests had been herded together by the gunmen and taken up to the upper floors of the hotel.

Rakesh Patel, a guest at the Taj, said the gunmen ‘were asking for British or American passports”.

”They came from the restaurant and took us up the stairs,” Patel, a British citizen based in Hong Kong, said.

”They were very young, like boys really, wearing jeans and T-shirts.”

‘Worst experience of my life’
One woman staying at the Taj told how she lay on the floor of one room with 25 other petrified guests as gunmen fought special commandos.

”That was, without doubt, the worst experience of my entire life,” she told reporters. ”It was a very, very painful six hours.

”We could hear the army coming through the hotel. We heard the firing and the blasts. In the end the firemen broke the windows of the room and we climbed down the ladder.”

When military units stormed the Taj to confront the gunmen, a huge fire broke out at the top of the hotel, trapping some guests.

US citizen Marilyn Ernsteen, who was with her husband Joseph, said they thought the gunfire was fireworks until hotel staff said they should lock themselves in their rooms and turn off the lights.

”I didn’t know what was going on. I was terrified,” she said.

Taking only her passport and purse, she and her husband, who are from Chicago, escaped from their fourth-floor room through smoky hallways and out a fire exit.

Australian television actress Brooke Satchwell, a former star in the soap opera Neighbours, hid inside a small cupboard when violence erupted at the Taj.

”As I stepped inside the lobby gunshots started to go off,” she said. ”It was really terrifying. There were people getting shot in the corridor. There was someone dead outside the bathroom.”

Tracing South Africans in Mumbai
Meanwhile, the South African government has extended its condolences to the Indian government and public.

Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa said the South African consulate-general in Mumbai has received a number of calls from concerned families in South Africa as well as South African companies with employees in Mumbai, including pilots and crew members from South African Airways.

”Due to communication problems created by the attacks, the consulate-general has managed to make contact with the three pilots and four crew members and efforts are currently underway to contact the rest of the crew members.

‘The consulate-general is in the process of tracing two officials from the South African Reserve Bank reported to be in the Mumbai area,” he said.

South African consul-general in Mumbai Busi Kuzwayo has asked all South African companies based in the city to advise if any of their employees were in the vicinity of attacks.

”The consul-general is still awaiting feedback from these companies,” Mamoepa said.

South African families with relatives in Mumbai are encouraged to contact the consular section of the Department of Foreign Affairs on 012 351 1000.

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Boyd Webb
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