Friday, November 28, 2008

UPDATED 5:50 p.m.

NEW DELHI | Sporadic gunfire continued Saturday in the historic Taj Mahal hotel as one of the worst terrorist sprees in India’s commercial capital drew to a close.

By Saturday morning, the death toll had risen to 160 including five Americans.

A Virginia man, his teenage daughter, a rabbi from New York and his wife were among those killed.

The Virginians, Alan Scherr, 58, a former University of Maryland professor, and his daughter Naomi, 13, died at the luxury Oberoi Hotel. They were visiting India with the meditation group Synchronicity. The group, announcing the deaths on Friday, said Alan and his wife, Kia, had been integral members of the community for more than a decade since moving to Faber, Va.

“Alan committed most of his adult life to meditation, spirituality and conscious living. He was a passionate Vedic astrologer and meditation teacher who inspired many people to begin a journey of self-awareness and meditation,” the group said in a statement.

It described Naomi as “a bright and lively young woman who loved spending time with people and living life to the fullest.” “She was passionate, if not a little mischievous, and will be fondly remembered by many of us for colorful hair styles and radiant energy,” the group said.

On Friday night, the New York-based Chabad Lubavitch movement confirmed that Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, had been killed at a Jewish center under siege in the city. The Holtzbergs moved from the United States to India in 2003 to run the Bombay branch of the outreach organization. The couple’s 2-year-old son was evacuated from the Chabad House earlier in the crisis.

Three Germans, two French citizens, an Italian, an Australian and one Singaporean were also among at least 22 foreigners killed. Sixteen policemen, two commandos and 11 terrorists also died. Another 327 people were injured.

Police said they had cleared the Oberoi Hotel, killing two militants and freeing hundreds of trapped guests. Thirty-six bodies were found and law enforcement personnel were searching the building for survivors.

A chief of an Indian navy commando unit flushing terrorists out of the Taj Mahal hotel said he saw up to 15 bodies in one room. Military sources said early Saturday that the operation could take a few more hours to wrap up.

Even as Indian officials blamed Pakistan for the attacks, the Pakistani government agreed to an Indian request to send the chief of its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to India to help in the investigation. India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the preliminary investigation “indicates that some elements in Pakistan are involved.”

In a phone call with his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh suggested the gunmen had come from Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.

C. Christine Fair, a South Asia analyst for the RAND Corp., said she would be surprised if Pakistan was not involved.

“It’s just a question of how and at what level. I do suspect that this will affect the India-Pakistan rapprochement and it will put pressure on the new Obama administration to take Pakistan more seriously as a cause of insecurity in the region,” she told The Washington Times.

Daniel S. Markey, a senior fellow for South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “Those who perpetrated these attacks appear to have been inspired, both in their ideology and tactics, by groups that historically enjoyed protection and assistance from the Pakistani state. But, it is not yet possible to say whether this group came from Pakistan or had ties to the ISI.”

The Taj Mahal hotel was wracked by hours of intermittent gunfire and explosions throughout Friday, even though authorities said they had cleared it of gunmen the night before, the Associated Press reported. At dusk, Indian forces began launching grenades at the building, where authorities believed one or perhaps two militants were holed up in a ballroom.

The capture of the Taj hotel would mark the end of one of the most brazen terror attacks in India’s history.

The commandos found money, ammunition and an identity card from the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius thought to belong to the terrorists. “We recovered $1,200, AK series rifles, credit cards and a Mauritian national identity card from Taj hotel,” said the commando chief, his face swathed in a black cloth to conceal his identity.

Marine commandos said the terrorists were well trained. “Not everybody can fire AK series weapons. Using such weapons and explosives, it is obvious they were trained somewhere,” a masked officer of the force told reporters. “These people were very, very familiar with the hotel layout. It appeared that they had carried out a survey [of the hotel] before. And they were very determined. Remorseless.”

In the most dramatic of the counterstrikes Friday morning, masked commandos rappelled from a helicopter to the rooftop of the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish center as snipers laid down cover fire.

For nearly 12 hours, explosions and gunfire erupted from the five-story building as the commandos fought their way downward, while thousands of people gathered behind barricades in the streets to watch.

The assault blew huge holes in the center, and, at one point, Indian forces fired a rocket at the building.

Soon after, elated commandos ran outside with their rifles raised over their heads in a sign of triumph.

But inside the Chabad House was a scene of tragedy.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel’s Channel 1 TV that the bodies of three women and three men were found at the center. Some of the victims had been bound, Mr. Barak said. “All in all, it was a difficult spectacle,” he said.

CNN reported the government had cut off their live transmissions from the scene in Bombay. Authorities have asked not to show live broadcasts of the battle because they believe the gunmen were monitoring the news. Most channels largely obliged.

Click here for an AP interactive map and here for an AP timeline. (Warning: Some images are graphic.)

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