- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2008

MUMBAI, INDIA (AP) - Teams of gunmen stormed luxury hotels, a popular restaurant, a crowded train station and a Jewish group’s headquarters in India’s financial capital, killing at least 101 people, taking Westerners hostage and leaving parts of the city under siege Thursday. A group of suspected Muslim militants claimed responsibility.

Police and gunmen were exchanging occasional gunfire at two luxury hotels and dozens of people were believed held hostage or trapped inside the besieged buildings. Pradeep Indulkar, a senior official at the Maharashtra state Home Ministry said 101 people were killed and 287 injured.

Officials said eight militants had also been killed in the coordinated attacks on at least 10 sites that began around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Gunmen also seized the Mumbai headquarters of the ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach group Chabad Lubavitch, the New York-based group said. Indian commandos surrounded the building Thursday morning and media reports said gunfire was heard from the building.

Police loudspeakers declared a curfew around Mumbai’s landmark Taj Mahal hotel, and black-clad commandos ran into the building as fresh gunshots rang out from the area, apparently the beginning of an assault on gunmen who had taken hostages in the hotel.

Soldiers outside the hotel said forces were moving slowly, from room to room, looking for gunmen and traps.

A series of explosions had rocked the Taj Mahal just after midnight. Screams were heard and black smoke and flames billowed from the century-old edifice on Mumbai’s waterfront. Firefighters sprayed water at the blaze and plucked people from balconies with extension ladders. By dawn, the fire was still burning.

At the nearby upscale Oberoi hotel, soldiers could be seen on the roof of neighboring buildings. A banner hung out of one window read “save us.” No one could be seen inside the room from the road.

Officials at Bombay Hospital, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a Japanese man had died there and nine Europeans had been admitted, three of them in critical condition with gunshots. All had come from the Taj Mahal, the officials said.

At least three top Indian police officers _ including the chief of the anti-terror squad _ were among those killed, said and A.N. Roy, a top police official.

The attackers specifically targeted Britons and Americans at the hotels and restaurant, witnesses said.

Alex Chamberlain, a British citizen who was dining at the Oberoi, told Sky News television that a gunman ushered 30 to 40 people from the restaurant into a stairway and, speaking in Hindi or Urdu, ordered everyone to put up their hands.

“They were talking about British and Americans specifically. There was an Italian guy, who, you know, they said: ‘Where are you from?” and he said he’s from Italy and they said ‘fine’ and they left him alone. And I thought: ‘Fine, they’re going to shoot me if they ask me anything _ and thank God they didn’t,” he said.

Chamberlain said he managed to slip away as the patrons were forced to walk up stairs, but he thought much of the group was being held hostage.

The motive for the onslaught was not immediately clear, but Mumbai has frequently been targeted in terrorist attacks blamed on Islamic extremists, including a series of bombings in July 2006 that killed 187 people.

Mumbai, on the western coast of India overlooking the Arabian Sea, is home to splendid Victorian architecture built during the British Raj and is one of the most populated cities in the world with some 18 million crammed into shantytowns, high rises and crumbling mansions. The Taj Mahal hotel, filled with Oriental carpets, Indian artifacts and alabaster ceilings, overlooks the fabled Gateway of India that commemorated the visit of King George V and Queen Mary.

A spokesman for the Lubavitch movement in New York, Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, said attackers “stormed the Chabad house” in Mumbai.

“It seems that the terrorists commandeered a police vehicle which allowed them easy access to the area of the Chabad house and threw a grenade at a gas pump nearby,” he said, citing a variety of sources.

He said he did not know the status of occupants of the house, which serves as an educational center and a synagogue.

Early Thursday, state home secretary Bipin Shrimali said four suspects had been killed in two incidents in Mumbai when they tried to flee in cars, and Roy said four more gunmen were killed at the Taj Mahal. State Home Minister R.R. Patil said nine more were arrested. They declined to provide any further details.

“We’re going to catch them dead or alive,” Patil told reporters. “An attack on Mumbai is an attack on the rest of the country.”

An Indian media report said a previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen had claimed responsibility for the attacks in e-mails to several media outlets. There was no way to verify that claim.

The state government ordered schools and colleges and the Bombay Stock Exchange closed Thursday.

Police reported hostages being held at the Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels, two of the best-known upscale destinations.

Gunmen who burst into the Taj “were targeting foreigners. They kept shouting: `Who has U.S. or U.K. passports?’” said Ashok Patel, a British citizen who fled from the hotel.

Authorities believed up to 15 foreigners were hostages at the Taj Mahal hotel, said Anees Ahmed, a top state official.

It was also unclear where the hostages were in the Taj Mahal, which is divided into an older wing that was in flames, and a more modern tower.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said U.S. officials were not aware of any American casualties, but were still checking.

“We condemn these attacks and the loss of innocent life,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.

Blood smeared the grounds of the 19th century Chhatrapati Shivaji railroad station _ a beautiful example of Victorian Gothic architecture _ where attackers sprayed bullets into the crowded terminal.

Nasim Inam’s hands shook when he spoke of seeing four attackers gunning down commuters as they walked to catch late trains home.

“They wore black T-shirts and blue jeans. They were carrying big guns,” said Inam. “They just fired randomly at people and then ran away. In seconds, people fell to the ground.”

Other gunmen attacked Leopold’s restaurant, a landmark popular with foreigners, and the police headquarters in southern Mumbai, the area where most of the attacks took place. The restaurant was riddled with bullet holes and there was blood on the floor and shoes left by fleeing customers. Gunmen also attacked Cama and Albless Hospital and G.T. Hospital, though it was not immediately clear if anyone was killed.

Early Thursday, several European lawmakers were among those who barricaded themselves inside the Taj, a century-old seaside hotel complex and one of the city’s best-known destinations.

“I was in the main lobby and there was all of a sudden a lot of firing outside,” said Sajjad Karim, part of a delegation of European lawmakers visiting Mumbai ahead of a European Union-India summit.

As he turned to get away, “all of a sudden another gunmen appeared in front of us, carrying machine gun-type weapons. And he just started firing at us … I just turned and ran in the opposite direction,” he told The Associated Press over his mobile phone.

Hours later, Karim remained holed up in a hotel restaurant, unsure if it was safe to come out.

India has been wracked by bomb attacks the past three years, which police blame on Muslim militants intent on destabilizing this largely Hindu country. Nearly 700 people have died.

Since May a militant group calling itself the Indian Mujahideen has taken credit for a string of blasts that killed more than 130 people. The most recent was in September, when explosions struck a park and crowded shopping areas in the capital, New Delhi, killing 21 people and wounding about 100.

Relations between Hindus, who make up more than 80 percent of India’s 1 billion population, and Muslims, who make up about 14 percent, have sporadically erupted into bouts of sectarian violence since British-ruled India was split into independent India and Pakistan in 1947.

___

Associated Press writers Erika Kinetz in Mumbai, Raphael G. Satter in London and Cristian Salazar in New York contributed to this report.

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