AFP - The sole surviving gunman from last year's Mumbai attacks, a Pakistani national, on Monday pleaded guilty at his trial, admitting for the first time his part in the atrocity that killed 166 people.
Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, 21, told a special prison court -- where he had originally pleaded not guilty -- that he wanted to confess, taking the judge, prosecution and his own defence lawyer by surprise.
"I plead guilty," he told the court in Mumbai, before narrating how the attacks were carried out, and giving details of his journey from Pakistan with nine other gunmen.
Kasab and accomplice Abu Ismail opened fire with AK-47 assault rifles and threw hand grenades at commuters at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, killing 52 and wounding 109 in the bloodiest episode of the 60-hour reign of terror.
The pair then fled the station, firing indiscriminately on the way, killing civilians and a number of senior police officers, including the head of the city's Anti-Terrorism Squad, Hemant Karkare.
Kasab, who also placed an eight-kilogram (18-pound) bomb in a taxi that took him to the station and later exploded near Mumbai's airport, killing the driver and a passenger, was the only one of the 10 gunmen to survive.
"I was firing and Abu was hurling hand grenades," he told the court, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.
"I was in front of Abu who had taken such a position that no one could see him. I fired at a policeman after which there was no firing from the police side."
Prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam told reporters outside court that Kasab had realised "the cat was out of the bag" after 134 witnesses gave evidence against him since the trial began in April.
DNA, fingerprint and closed-circuit television evidence was also produced in court.
Nikam linked the confession to the forthcoming trial in Pakistan of five men accused of involvement in the attacks, including key Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives Zarar Shah and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged mastermind.
LeT, a banned, Pakistan-based Islamist group, is said to have trained, equipped and financed the November 26-29 attacks, which targeted luxury hotels, Mumbai's main railway station, a popular restaurant and Jewish centre.
The attacks, which wounded more than 300 people and left 26 foreign nationals dead, frayed already strained relations between India and Pakistan and sparked international condemnation.
Ashok Chavan, the chief minister of Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, welcomed Kasab's guilty plea and told the NDTV news channel: "All those involved in the 26/11 attacks should be hanged."
Divya Salaskar's father Vijay, a top Mumbai police firearms officer, was shot dead with Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Karkare as Kasab and Ismail fled the railway station.
She said Kasab's confession would help her deal with her loss and also called for his execution.
"My father was my best friend. Suddenly somebody took him away from me. It changed my whole life," the 21-year-old economics graduate told AFP. "Now it feels like it's falling into place again.
"I can see a light at the end of the tunnel," she added.
Police inspector N.R. Mali, who helped arrest Kasab after a shoot-out, said he should have confessed long ago.
"Now after two months into the trial he realised that everything was going against him and that he is in trouble, so he smartly confessed," he was quoted as saying by PTI.
Before the trial, Kasab's lawyer Abbas Kazmi told AFP in an interview that he faced a "nearly impossible task" defending his client because of the number of witnesses.
But he indicated that his defence could hinge on whether Kasab was fully responsible for his actions, suggesting that he may have been brainwashed into carrying out the attacks.
Kazmi told reporters Monday: "It was shocking for everyone, including me. I had no idea that he was going to confess today."
The trial was initially delayed after Kasab claimed to be under 18 at the time of the attacks, raising the prospect that he could be tried by the juvenile court, which can only impose a maximum three-year jail term.
Medical tests, though, established he was over 18. As a result, the court can impose the maximum sentence of death.
Kasab also claimed he had been tortured in police custody into signing a confession statement, which was later retracted.
Two Indian nationals are also on trial, accused of providing vital logistical support to the 10 gunmen.