New Delhi dispatch
When Indian police blamed Pakistani terrorists for a shopping centre shootout, it seems to have been a crude attempt to defame Islamabad, writes Luke Harding
Monday November 11, 2002
It had all seemed so convincing. When two "terrorists" arrived at Ansal Plaza, Delhi's most upmarket shopping centre, the police were waiting for them.
The men parked their car in the underground basement and got out. When a plain clothed officer challenged them, they allegedly opened fire. In the ensuing 15-minute "encounter" both militants were shot dead.
The following day Indian newspapers published gruesome photos of one of the slain "terrorists" lying on the floor, his finger still on the trigger of a Chinese-made pistol. The Indian government promptly announced that the "terrorists" were from Pakistan, and congratulated the police on foiling a major attack one the eve of Diwali, India's biggest festival.
There was only one problem with the police's story: it wasn't true. Yesterday the Ansal Plaza "shootout" - which took place a short walk from India's only branch of Marks and Spencer - was beginning to turn into a serious embarrassment for India's deputy prime minister LK Advani, who visited the scene on Monday.
Indian newspapers had already pointed out several discrepancies in the police's version of events. Why did one of the "terrorists" have a black eye? And why did they choose to drive into an underground car park instead of opening fire immediately on shoppers?
Yesterday a doctor who was in the basement at the time gave dramatic testimony. He claimed that both men were unarmed when police shot them. Dr H Krishna said the men stumbled out of their car and appeared either drugged or suffering from lack of sleep. They were empty-handed and walking with difficulty, he added.
The police opened fire a minute later, killing the "terrorists" instantly. When Dr Krishna tried to explain this to reporters, officers escorted him away. He later gave his account to India's Asian Age newspaper, and then wisely disappeared off to Australia. Several intelligence officers had turned up outside his home. Indian human rights organisations have now asked the police for an explanation.
The incident - or lack of incident - has, of course, a wider political significance. India has persistently accused Pakistan of supporting Islamist militants who infiltrate into India to carry out attacks in Kashmir and elsewhere.
There is no doubt that New Delhi has a strong point: the raid two months ago, for example, on a Hindu temple in Gujarat, in which 30 people were shot dead, was almost certainly the work of a Pakistan-based militant organisation, Lashkar-i-Toiba. But the "encounter" on November 3 appears to have been entirely stage-managed by the Indian police.
It was, presumably, a crude attempt to defame Islamabad. Pakistan has said it had nothing to do with the dead men, whose true identities remain a mystery. Last night Indian detectives were doggedly sticking to their increasingly discredited version of events.
The officer in charge, Neeraj Kumar, said his men had recovered an AK-56 rifle and two pistols, as well as a mobile phone and three diaries. These apparently gave details of a plot to kill Mr Advani. He denied that his officers had planted the weapons on the dead men.
But few people will be satisfied with his assurances and ballistics experts have pointed out that the "first reaction" of someone hit by heavy fire is to drop whatever they are holding.
Such murky "encounters" take place routinely between security forces and "militants" in Indian Kashmir. But Kashmir is a long way away from India's capital and they rarely get much scrutiny.
Any shootout in the heart of Delhi - a stroll away from Pizza Express, McDonalds and Lacoste - is bound to attract attention, and this one has provoked more questions than answers.
The entire episode does not reflect well on either the Indian home ministry or the police force, and undermines New Delhi's claim that it is the victim of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. There is plenty of genuine terrorism in India. There is no need to invent more.