- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2008

BOMBAY | In a series of attacks aimed at Western tourists, terrorists attacked India’s financial capital late Wednesday, killing at least 80 people with automatic weapons and grenades and rounding up foreigners as hostages.

India dispatched army troops to India’s largest city in an attempt to rescue at least 40 visitors, including tourists held captive at two luxury hotels in south Bombay.

A previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the attacks, the Press Trust of India reported. 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, the attackers looked for hotel guests with U.S. and British passports, several of whom were taken hostage.

About 15 hotel guests, half of them foreigners, were reportedly seized and moved to the top floor of 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.

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

After beginning their terror spree in south Bombay, the terrorists moved to the north of the city and attacked two American chain hotels, the Ramada and the Marriott.

At last seven 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 four gunmen were killed and seven arrested.

Indian army and marine commandos took over security at the 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 one billion, also complain of discrimination in a Hindu marjority state.

According to Bombay Police Commissioner A.N. Roy, the attacks occurred at seven locations initially, all in south Bombay.

The attacks began at Bombay’s main commuter train terminal around 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.

Another target was Cama Hospital in south Bombay, close to the train terminal. After they were surrounded by the police, the attackers moved to the fourth floor and began to fire at the police at random.

Later there were reports of blasts and firings in the north of the island city. Among the targets: the Ramada and Marriott hotels.

Bethesda-based Marriott group has been a target of terrorist attacks before, the latest a bombing in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad in September that left 54 people dead.

In Washington, the State Department condemned the attack and said it was not aware of any American casualties.

“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 in a statement. “The United States must continue to strengthen our partnerships with India and nations around the world to root out and destroy terrorist networks.”

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 bomb 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 Wedneday 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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