- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2008

MUMBAI, INDIA (AP) - A trickle of bodies and hostages emerged from a luxury hotel Thursday as Indian commandoes tried to free people trapped by suspected Muslim militants who attacked at least 10 targets in India’s financial capital of Mumbai, killing 104 people.

More than 300 were also wounded in the highly coordinated attacks Wednesday night by bands of gunmen who invaded two five star hotels, a popular restaurant, a crowded train station, a Jewish center and at least five other sites, armed with assault rifles, hand grenades and explosives.

A previously unknown Islamic militant group claimed responsibility for the carnage, the latest in a series of nationwide terror attacks over the past three years that have dented India’s image as an industrious nation galloping toward prosperity.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed “external forces.”

“The well-planned and well-orchestrated attacks, probably with external linkages, were intended to create a sense of panic, by choosing high profile targets and indiscriminately killing foreigners,” he said in address to the nation.

Among the dead were at least one Australian, a Japanese and a British national, said Pradeep Indulkar, a senior government official of Maharashtra state, whose capital is Mumbai. An Italian and a German were also killed, according to their foreign ministries.

Police said 104 people were killed and 314 injured. Officials said eight militants were also killed.

The most high-profile target was the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel, a landmark of Mumbai luxury since 1903, and a favorite watering hole of the city’s elite.

Police loudspeakers declared a curfew around the Taj Mahal hotel Thursday afternoon, and black-clad commandos ran into the building as fresh gunshots rang out from the area.

Soldiers outside the hotel said the operation would take a long time as forces were moving slowly, from room to room, looking for gunmen and traps.

In the afternoon, bodies and hostages slowly emerged from the building. At least three bodies, covered in white cloth, were wheeled out.

Throughout the day, explosions and gunfire were heard and toward dusk flames again blossomed from a window of the Taj.

About a dozen people, including foreigners, were also evacuated from the hotel and whisked into a waiting ambulance. Several of them carried small pieces of luggage. One older man was carried into the ambulance by police.

The attackers, dressed in black shirts and jeans, had stormed into the hotel at about 9:45 p.m. and opened fire indiscriminately.

“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 before a European Union-India summit.

Suddenly “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.

The shooting was followed by a series of explosions that set fire to parts of the century-old edifice on Mumbai’s waterfront. Screams were heard and black smoke and flames billowed, continuing to burn until dawn.

Dalbir Bains, who runs a lingerie shop in Mumbai, was about to eat her steak by the pool at the hotel when she heard the sound of gunfire. She said she ran upstairs, taking refuge in the Sea Lounge restaurant, with about 50 other people.

They huddled beneath tables in the dark, trying to remain as quiet as possible while explosions were going off.

“We were trying not to draw attention to ourselves,” she said. The group managed to escape before dawn.

The gunmen also seized the Mumbai headquarters of the ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach group Chabad Lubavitch and attacked the Oberoi Hotel, another five-star landmark.

The gunmen appeared to be holed up inside all three buildings on Thursday, nearly 18 hours later, holding foreign and local hostages, as Indian commandos surrounded the buildings.

Among those foreigners held captive were Americans, British, Italians, Swedes, Canadians, Yemenis, New Zealanders, Spaniards, Turks, a Singaporean and Israelis.

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

Gunfire and explosions were heard from the Taj Mahal, the Oberoi and the Chabad facility.

“It seems that the terrorists commandeered a police vehicle which allowed them easy access to the area of the Chabad house,” said a spokesman for the Lubavitch movement in New York, Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin.

Around 10:30 a.m., a woman, a child and an Indian cook were seen being led out of the building by police, said one witness.

The child was identified as Moshe Holtzberg, 2, the son of Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, the main representative at Chabad house. The child was unharmed, but his clothes were soaked in blood.

Sandra Samuel,44, the cook who pulled the boy out the building, said she saw Rabbi Holzberg, his wife Rivka and two other unidentified guests lying on the floor, apparently “unconscious.

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

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 appeared to have been targeting Britons and Americans.

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 United States and Pakistan were among the countries that condemned the attacks.

In Washington, White House press secretary Dana Perino said the U.S. “condemns this terrorist attack and we will continue to stand with the people of India in this time of tragedy.”

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.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism specialist with the Swedish National Defense College, said there are “very strong suspicions” that the coordinated Mumbai attacks have a link to al-Qaida.

He said the fact that Britons and Americans were singled out is one indicator, along with the coordinated style of the attacks.

“There have been a lot of warnings about India lately and there are very strong suspicions of a link to al-Qaida.”

Later Thursday the Indian navy said its forces were boarding a cargo vessel suspected of ties to the attacks.

Navy spokesman Capt. Manohar Nambiar said Thursday that the ship, the MV Alpha, had recently come to Mumbai from Karachi, Pakistan.

The navy has “located the ship and now we are in the process of boarding it and searching it,” he said. Earlier, Indian media showed pictures of black and yellow rubber dinghies found by the shore, apparently used by the gunmen to reach the area.

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.

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

Among the other places attacked was the 19th century Chhatrapati Shivaji railroad station _ a beautiful example of Victorian Gothic architecture _ where gunmen sprayed bullets into the crowded terminal, leaving the floor splattered with blood.

“They just fired randomly at people and then ran away. In seconds, people fell to the ground,” said Nasim Inam, a witness.

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. Gunmen also attacked Cama and Albless Hospital and G.T. Hospital, though it was not immediately clear if anyone was killed.

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 Ramola Talwar Badam, Erika Kinetz and Jenny Barchfield in Mumbai, Raphael G. Satter in London and Cristian Salazar in New York contributed to this report.

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