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SA 'heroes' save Mumbai hostages

Flames and black smoke billow from the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, Mumbai, on 27/11/08
Explosions can still be heard at the Taj Mahal hotel

A team of South African bodyguards have been explaining how they led 120 hostages to safety from a hotel seized by gunmen in the Indian city, Mumbai.

The guards, armed only with knives and meat cleavers, helped other hotel guests to safety down a fire escape.

They carried a traumatised old woman in a chair down 25 flights of stairs.

"Everybody was calm and no-one became hysterical," said Bob Nicholls, director of the security company in Mumbai for a cricket tournament.

Mr Nicholls said he and his employees were eating in the restaurant and were planning to get an early night when they heard shooting in another part of the five-star Taj Mahal hotel.

The seven bodyguards were in Mumbai providing protection for cricketers playing in the Indian Premier League tournament.

They barricaded the doors to the conference centre shut with tables and refrigerators and kept guests calm while they worked out what to do.

"Shortly afterwards, we felt explosions rock the building and I became worried about how safe the people were behind those glass doors," Mr Nicholls told South Africa's Beeld newspaper.

'Surprise'

"We put the lights off in the restaurant to give us an element of surprise," bodyguard Faisul Nagel told the AFP news agency.

They watched the lifts to see if the gunmen were coming their way.

When they realised the building was on fire they began to move the other hotel guests out.

"We told the security manager of the hotel to tell the police not to shoot, and then walked everyone down the fire exit at the back of the hotel very quickly," Mr Nagel said.

Mr Nicholls said they had all been trained how to deal with threatening situations.

Bodies

Meanwhile, all the South African nationals who were trapped in the other hotel attacked on Wednesday have now been freed.

South African officials said the Indian security forces had evacuated the remaining seven nationals from the Oberoi hotel, and they were safe.

Another five had been evacuated earlier. All worked for the national airline, SAA.

Indian commandos who managed to enter other parts of the Taj Mahal say they found at least 30 bodies in one hall. It is not clear if that number is included in the reported overall death toll of 130.

Gunmen armed with automatic weapons and grenades targeted at least seven sites in Mumbai late on Wednesday, opening fire indiscriminately on crowds at a major railway station, the two hotels, the Jewish centre, a hospital and a cafe frequented by foreigners.

The attacks are the worst in India's commercial capital since nearly 200 people were killed in a series of bombings in 2006.

A claim of responsibility has been made by a previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen.

However, most intelligence officials are keeping an open mind as the attacks have thrown up conflicting clues, BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner says.

 Map of Mumbai showing location of attacks

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