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Mumbai gets India’s first regional base for anti-terror troops

Mumbai — India’s first regional unit for specialist anti-terror troops has opened in Mumbai, fulfilling a government pledge after criticisms of the military’s slow response to last year’s attacks on the city.

The hub for some 250 National Security Guard (NSG) commandos, opened by Home Minister P. Chidambaram on Tuesday evening, is the first of four new centres across the country.

The others in Kolkata, eastern India, and the southern cities of Chennai and Hyderabad open on Wednesday.

Security officials say the new base — temporarily housed near Mumbai’s international airport until a permanent facility nearby is operational next year — will reduce incident response times drastically.

But security analysts said India still has a long way to go to improve its counter-terrorism capabilities, despite an increase in defence spending since last year.

Ajai Sahni, editor of the South Asian Intelligence Review and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, described the regional NSG units as a "token" response.

"Any terrorist attack realises its potential within the first few minutes," he told AFP.

"If you have a unit in north Mumbai and south Mumbai is attacked, in the 45 minutes to two hours it takes to get there, the terrorists have already done their worst."

Better training and equipment for India’s overstretched and under-funded local police to help them contain the situation as the first line of defence would be a more viable option, he added.

"We’re still committed to the ‘Rambo’ model. We think a handful of strong, well-trained men can take on the world. That might happen in films but it’s nonsense in reality," he added.

Nicknamed the "Black Cats", the NSG is modelled on the British Army’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) and the GSG-9, the specialist operations unit of the German police.

The Indian government recommended setting up regional units after the November 26-29 Mumbai attacks, which saw 10 Islamist extremist gunmen kill 166 people and injure more than 300 others in a 60-hour killing spree.

NSG troops only arrived in India’s financial capital on the morning of November 27 — some 10 hours after the first shots were fired.

Counter-terrorism experts say that any rapid reaction force should be on the scene with 30 to 60 minutes.

The slow response was blamed on organisational and logistical difficulties in getting commandos from their base south of Delhi to Mumbai, as the NSG has no aircraft of its own.

Praveen Swami, a terrorism analyst and associate editor at The Hindu, an English-language newspaper, said the new regional units were "a welcome but very, very small step".

"It’s at the sharp end that there’s a real problem, the mundane, every day point of delivery," he told AFP.

"When you have these large terrorist attacks, the real problem is not getting the special units in, it’s been the first responders, the police and other emergency services, being able to deal with it."

State governments were slowly realising the need to improve local policing, after a wave of Islamist extremist attacks across India last year, he added.

In Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, nearly 300 commandos are currently being trained for the state’s new counter-terrorism unit, called Force One.

Meanwhile, five special squads of 200 Mumbai Police officers — all trained to use AK-47 assault rifles and equipped with bullet-proof jackets and vehicles — are to be stationed across the city as a rapid response force.

But problems remain: neither the 40,000-strong Mumbai Police — responsible for a city of 18 million — nor the NSG has its own helicopters for the quick transportation of officers and troops.

Phil Hazlewood/AFP/Expatica