- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2008

UPDATED:

BOMBAY

In a series of attacks aimed at Western tourists, terrorists attacked India’s financial capital late Wednesday, killing more than 100 people with automatic weapons and grenades and rounding up foreigners as hostages.

Early Thursday, there were signs around India’s largest city of a commando raid on one of the two south Bombay luxury hotels, where at least 15 visitors were being held hostage.

A previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the attacks in an e-mail sent to several news outlets. Terrorism experts in the United States said the extent and sophistication of the attacks pointed to an al Qaeda-affiliated group.

Witnesses reported several explosions at the high-end Taj Mahal hotel, a Bombay landmark and the flagship hotel in the chain owned by the Tata group. According to television reports based on eyewitness accounts, the attackers looked for hotel guests with U.S. and British passports, several of whom were taken hostage.

Pradeep Indulkar, a senior official with the state of Maharashtra’s Home Office, said 101 people were killed and 287 injured.

“At least six foreigners have been killed,” added Ramesh Tayde, a senior Bombay police officer.

About 15 hotel guests, half of them foreigners, were reportedly seized and moved to the top floor of the hotel that stands next to the iconic Gateway of India facing the Bombay harbor. The South Korean government said 28 Koreans managed to escape from the hotel.

Television reports showed thick, black smoke billowing out of the dome of the Taj hotel, before it went up in flames. Witnesses reported hearing frequent explosions from the building. One report said attackers were seen throwing grenades from the roof. According to reports, at least five hand grenades were hurled in the lobby of the hotel.

The sounds of fresh gunshots and ambulances could be heard in the Taj hotel area Thursday morning as Bombay police declared a curfew in the area via loudspeaker, closed schools and the stock market, and moved journalists even farther away from the hotel — all possible signs of an assault on the hostage-takers. Black-clad commandos were seen running into the hotel building.

At the Oberoi-Trident Hotel, the lobby was set on fire after apparent gunbattles.

A man identified only as Sahadullah told India TV on Thursday that he was one of seven attackers holding hostages inside the Oberoi-Trident and issued a demand for the release of Muslim prisoners.

“We want all mujahideens held in India released, and only after that we will release the people,” he said.

There were also unconfirmed reports that some of the terrorists came in by sea. A boat laden with explosives was recovered later at night off the Gateway of India, the Times of India reported.

At last 11 policemen, including three senior officers, were killed while attempting to free the hostages and attack the terrorists. These include Hemant Karkare, the chief of the Anti-Terrorist Squad, and a prime target of terrorists.

Authorities said at least six gunmen were killed and seven were arrested.

Officials at Bombay Hospital told the Associated Press a Japanese man had died there and nine Europeans were admitted, three of them in critical condition with gunshot wounds. All were brought in from the Taj.

Indian army and marine commandos took over security at the two hotels.

The attacks appeared to be well-planned and coordinated. The terrorists struck late in the evening local time, carrying out simultaneous attacks at crowded places. They began by throwing hand grenades and then opening fire with AK-47 assault rifles at random.

A U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition he not be named, said it was too soon to say who was responsible for the attacks. However, he added, “When you look at India when it comes to terrorists attacks — particularly those that are simultaneous and sophisticated — we’ve seen these kinds of things before.”

Bruce Riedel, a veteran CIA officer and former senior director for South Asia and the Middle East on the White House National Security Council, said the attacks had the hallmarks of an al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic group such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is based in Pakistan and has had links to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

“India has been a major target of terrorism for the last several years, Bombay in particular,” Mr. Riedel said. “The vast bulk of these attacks have been carried out by Islamic extremist groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has close links to al Qaeda.”

Lashkar-e-Taiba opposes India’s control over Kashmir, which Pakistan also claims.

Indian Muslims, who number about 130 million out of a population of 1 billion, also complain of discrimination in a Hindu-majority nation.

According to state police chief A.N. Roy, the attacks occurred at seven locations initially, all in south Bombay.

The attacks began at Bombay’s main commuter-train terminal at about 10:30 p.m. local time. Hundreds of thousands pass through Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, formerly known as Victoria Terminus, and the station is normally crowded late into the night.

The 19th-century Gothic-style building is the centerpiece of Bombay’s architecture and the birthplace of the railway system in India.

The attackers also targeted Cafe Leopold, a restaurant in the Colaba neighborhood that is a popular hangout for tourists, and a movie theater. At two hospitals not far from the train terminus — Cama and GT — they fired at patients and staff. At Cama Hospital, when they were surrounded by police, the attackers moved to the fourth floor and began to fire at the police at random.

India’s Jewish Federation said Thursday that one group of gunmen took as hostages a Jewish rabbi and his family.

“The name of the place is Chabad house in south [Bombay]. I hear commandos are storming the apartment block, which is a four-story building. A rabbi is in there with his family,” federation chairman Jonathan Solomon told Agence France-Presse.

In Washington, the State Department condemned the attack and said it was not aware of any American casualties. U.S. diplomats in the city were safe, a spokesman said.

“We are monitoring the situation very closely and stand ready to support the Indian authorities as they deal with this horrific series of attacks,” spokesman Robert Wood said.

President Bush and President-elect Barack Obama also condemned the attacks.

“These coordinated attacks on innocent civilians demonstrate the grave and urgent threat of terrorism,” Mr. Obama’s national security spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said. “The United States must continue to strengthen our partnerships with India and nations around the world to root out and destroy terrorist networks.”

Mr. Obama later spoke with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Indian ambassador to the U.S., Ronen Sen.

The White House called a meeting of counterterrorism, intelligence and defense officials over the attacks before Mr. Bush left for the Camp David retreat for the Thanksgiving holiday, Reuters news agency reported.

“The U.S. government continues to monitor the situation, including the safety and security of our citizens, and stands ready to assist and support the Indian government,” the White House said.

The Justice Department said the FBI was monitoring the situation closely and was prepared to offer assistance if Indian authorities asked for it, but said it had not yet received such a request, the AP reported.

With the Thanksgiving holiday about to begin in the United States, authorities in New York had been on alert for possible attacks on the city’s subway’s system.

Bombay has had its share of terrorist attacks in the past. But the scope of yesterday’s assault on seven targets and the horror generated by targeting foreign visitors was reminiscent of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States or rush-hour attacks in Madrid and London in subsequent years.

More than a dozen simultaneous bomb attacks in March 1993 hit several high-profile targets in the city, including the stock exchange building, and killed 250 people. In July 2006, a series of blasts on commuter trains killed more than 200 people.

Both those attacks were blamed on Islamic militant groups.

A daring gun attack on the Indian Parliament building in December 2001 was blamed on Pakistan-based Islamist terrorists. Pakistan has denied any involvement.

Indian authorities recently also reported uncovering a Hindu terrorist cell that targeted Muslims in Maharashtra state, of which Bombay is the capital.

The targeting Wednesday of hotels frequented by Western businessmen and officials reinforces the likelihood of a link with al Qaeda, Mr. Riedel said. “Islamic groups, when they adopt the al Qaeda signature, have to adopt the ‘far enemy’ [the United States and the West] as part of he program.”

Desikan Thirunarayanapuram reported from Washington.

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