Saturday, November 29, 2008

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 and his teenage daughter, along with a rabbi from New York and his wife, were among those killed.

The Virginians, Alan Scherr, 58, a former University of Maryland professor, and 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 Mr. Scherr had been an integral member of the community for more than a decade since moving to Faber, Va.

Naomi “was passionate, if not a little mischievous, and will be fondly remembered by many of us for colorful hairstyles and radiant energy,” the statement said.

On Friday night, the New York-based Chabad Lubavitch movement confirmed that Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, had been killed at a Jewish center under siege in Bombay. 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. An additional 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.

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

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 Rand Corp., said she would be surprised if Pakistan were 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 racked 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 still holed up in a ballroom.

The capture of the Taj Mahal hotel marked the end of one of the most brazen terrorist 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 the 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.”

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

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

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 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.

Elated commandos ran from the building with their rifles raised over their heads in a sign of triumph.

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.

In Washington, President Bush said he was “deeply saddened” by the deaths and said his administration “has been working with the Indian government and the international community as Indian authorities work to ensure the safety of those still under threat.”

President-elect Barack Obama also sent his “deepest condolences” to the families of the American victims.

“These terrorists who targeted innocent civilians will not defeat India’s great democracy, nor shake the will of a global coalition to defeat them. The United States must stand with India and all nations and people who are committed to destroying terrorist networks, and defeating their hate-filled ideology,” he said.

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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