NEW DELHI — Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Thursday blamed militant groups in neighboring countries [-] almost certainly Pakistan [-] for plotting a series of terrorist attacks in the country’s financial capital of Bombay, as commandos fought to regain control of the city and the death toll exceeded 125.
India’s armed services, working in tandem with police, elite commandos and counterterrorism squads, on Friday scoured two luxury hotels and a Jewish center in Bombay for terrorists who were thought to be holding hostages.
Authorities said the death toll from the attacks, which started Wednesday night stood at 125, including at least six foreigners, by Friday morning.
Indian officials said they had killed three gunmen at the Taj Mahal Hotel and were sweeping both it and the Oberoi-Trident hotel early Friday in search of hostages and trapped people. Dozens of hostages have been released from the luxury hotels.
The State Department warned U.S. citizens against traveling to Bombay and other parts of India at this time.
In his televised address to the nation, Mr. Singh said it was “evident that the group which carried out these attacks, based outside the country, had come with single-minded determination to create havoc in the commercial capital of the country.”#
“We will take up strongly with our neighbors that the use of their territory for launching attacks on us will not be tolerated, and that there would be a cost if suitable measures are not taken by them,” he said.
Although Mr. Singh did not mention Pakistan by name, both politicians and analysts said that when government officials use the word “neighbors,” it is typically an allusion to Pakistan.
“Since the prime minister has publicly accused Pakistan, I think there is reason to believe that there must be a kernel of truth to it,” said Sumit Ganguly, a political science professor at Indiana University at Bloomington.
An Italian, a German, a Japanese and a Briton were among those confirmed dead. Foreigners among the 327 wounded included seven Britons, three Americans and two Australians. According to media reports and survivors, the terrorists specifically asked for guests with American and British passports.
A Virginia spiritual group said Thursday night that two of its American members were missing and four others were wounded.
Alan Scherr, 58, and his daughter, Naomi Scherr, 13, were not located, said Bobbie Garvey, a spokeswoman for the Faber-based Synchronicity Foundation. The Scherrs both live and work for the Foundation south of Charlottesville.
Four other members of the group’s 25-person party [-] two Americans and two Canadians who were staying at the Oberoi hotel [-] were wounded by gunfire, and were thought to be in stable condition, Synchronicity said in a statement.
On Thursday, firefighters battled flames spewing from the roof of the Taj Mahal Palace, which opened its doors in 1903. Gunfire was heard again just before midnight Friday at the Taj as the operation appeared to be winding down. At least one terrorist was captured alive.
On Friday morning, fresh gunshots and explosions were heard at Nariman House, the headquarters of the Orthodox Jewish group, Chabad Lubavitch. Helicopters circling overhead airdropped commandos onto the roof of the building as an unknown number of terrorists were thought to be holed up inside. Sources said it appeared more hostages were being held inside the building.
Witnesses told The Washington Times from Bombay that they could hear gunfire and explosions late Thursday night into Friday. One person trapped on the 20th floor of the Taj hotel said explosions had shaken his room. Bodies wrapped in white shrouds were seen being brought out of the hotels throughout the day.
There were conflicting reports on the fates of eight Israelis, including a young rabbi and his wife, who had been held hostage at Nariman House. While Indian officials said they had been rescued, Western diplomats said some of them were still being held hostage.
The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, meanwhile, warned Americans to defer travel to Bombay for at least the next 48 to 72 hours because of the “fluid situation” in the city. Those in Bombay were being asked to take shelter at their current location and to contact family and friends.
Maharashtra state police chief A.N. Roy said all hostages at the Taj hotel had been rescued, but there could be some still trapped at the Oberoi-Trident. He ruled out any negotiations with the terrorists, adding, “We will very soon get them either alive or dead.”
In what local media have dubbed “India’s 9/11,” an estimated 25 men armed with assault rifles and grenades, at least some of whom had arrived by sea, attacked several sites popular with tourists and businessmen across Bombay on Wednesday night.
By Friday morning, at least five terrorists and 14 police officers had been killed. Hemant Karkare, the chief of Bombay police’s counterterrorism squad, was among those killed.
State media reported that the attackers had set up “control rooms” in the two luxury hotels. Officials said the gunmen were prepared well, even carrying large bags of almonds to keep up their energy during the fight.
Ratan Tata, who runs the company #that owns the Taj, said the attackers appeared to have scouted their targets in advance.
“They seem to know their way around the back office, the kitchen. There has been a considerable amount of detailed planning,” he said at a press conference.
Law enforcement officials seized large caches of arms and ammunition, credit cards and food, suggesting the terrorists had planned a bigger and longer operation. Police also found a boat laden with explosives near the Taj, which is located on the waterfront.
Vowing to take “whatever measures are necessary” to bring the terrorists to justice, Mr. Singh said, India would not tolerate “neighbors” who provide shelter to militants.
In the past, terrorist attacks in India were blamed on its nuclear-armed western neighbor Pakistan, with whom India has waged three wars. However, Pakistani officials were quick to condemn the Bombay attacks and the veiled accusations from India.
Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, denied any involvement, saying that “terrorism is a threat to both India and Pakistan.”
He acknowledged that some terrorists are based on Pakistani soil, but said that was true of all countries as well as India and Afghanistan.#
“It is unfair to blame Pakistan or Pakistanis for these acts of terrorism even before an investigation is undertaken. Instead of scoring political points at the expense of a neighboring country that is itself a victim of terrorism, it is time for India’s leaders to work together with Pakistan’s elected leaders in putting up a joint front against terrorism,” he said.
Three of the militants have confessed they are members of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba group, the Hindu newspaper reported Friday. But the Islamist militant group, one of the largest in South Asia, denied that it had any role in the attacks.
Hindu-dominated India, which has a sizable Muslim minority, has been hit by militant attacks for decades.
This strike appeared aimed at crippling its ability to attract foreign investment. It bears some hallmarks of al Qaeda, but it is too early to say whether the network was behind it, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said.
A group called Deccan Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the attacks in e-mails to local news organizations. A group member, interviewed by a local TV station, said Bombay was attacked to protest the treatment of Muslims in India. He said seven terrorists were holding hostages in the Oberoi.
Shahadullah told the station that he was part of an Indian group seeking an end to the persecution of Indian Muslims. “We want all mujahedeens held in India released and only after that we will release the people,” he said.
University of Michigan terrorism analyst Scott Atran told The Washington Times, “As long as Pakistan is unstable and unable or unwilling to control jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba operating in India or al Qaeda affiliated groups in Afghanistan the whole region will remain volatile, European and American troops will be bogged down in Afghanistan and India will be a repeated target.”
Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow and South Asia analyst at the Brookings Institution, said homegrown terrorists may be involved in the attacks.
“There are plenty of alienated Hyderabadi Muslims,” Mr. Cohen said, referring to Muslims from central India. “My guess is that this is a complex operation involving several groups, some in India, perhaps some outside [-] the intel failure is pretty serious.”