MUMBAI, India - Coordinated terrorist attacks struck the heart of Mumbai, India's commercial capital, last night, killing more than 100 people in machine-gun and grenade assaults on at least two five-star hotels, the city's largest train station, a movie theater and a hospital.
Even by the standards of terrorism in India, which has suffered a rising number of terrorist attacks this year, the assaults were particularly brazen and different in scale and execution. The attackers used boats to reach the urban peninsula where they hit, and their targets were sites popular with tourists.
Mumbai police said the attacks killed at least 101 people and wounded 287, according to preliminary reports. Guests who had escaped the hotels told television stations that the attackers were taking hostages.
Witnesses interviewed by television networks told of attackers sweeping through two luxury hotels, the Taj Mahal Palace and the Oberoi Hilton, and separating American and British tourists from other guests for use as hostages.
Authorities believed seven to 15 foreigners were hostages at the hotel, said Anees Ahmed, a top state official. It was also unclear where the hostages were in the Taj Mahal.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said U.S. officials were not aware of any American casualties but were checking. He could not address reports that hostages might include Westerners.
Gunfire and explosions rang out well into the night. Hours after the assaults began, the landmark Taj Mahal Palace, next to the iconic Gateway of India, was in flames. Fire also raged inside the Oberoi Hotel, according to police.
Up to 16 coordinated groups at nine sites, most in the southern part of the city, also hit the domestic airport, the Chhatrapati Shivaji railway terminal and a restaurant called Cafe Leopold, a popular spot for tourists. Shoes, shattered glass and bits of twisted metal littered the area around the eating place.
The gunmen also attacked police headquarters in south Mumbai, according to news reports.
"We are under fire. There is shooting at the gate," Constable A. Shetti told the Associated Press by phone.
Near the Vile Parle station of the city's Western train line, a bomb went off in a taxi on the highway about 10 p.m. Parts of the vehicle could be seen scattered up to 100 feet away. Four people injured nearby were taken to a hospital.
Soon after, police were cordoning off all major roads, stopping even emergency vehicles because of reports that two attackers had hijacked a police van.
Among the victims was the head of the city's Anti-Terrorism Squad, Hemant Karkare, and two of his senior police officers, which complicated the response. Television footage showed Karkare donning a flak jacket and helmet minutes before heading into one of the hotels.
The military was quickly called in to help police.
News media reports said that gunmen seized the Mumbai headquarters of the ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach group Chabad Lubavitch overnight and that shots were heard coming from the building.
Representatives of the New York-based group referred questions to its Web site, which said the Israeli consulate had earlier been in touch with the rabbi who lived in the house, "but the line was cut in middle of the conversation. No further contact has since been established."
Hospitals in Mumbai have appealed for blood. As a sense of crisis gripped much of the city, schools and colleges announced that they would be closed today.
Unlike previous attacks in India this year, which consisted of anonymously planted bombs, the assailants last night were spectacularly well-armed and highly confrontational.
In some cases, said the state's highest-ranking police official, A.N. Roy, the attackers opened fire and disappeared. Indian officials said police killed four of the suspected attackers and captured nine.
Terrorism experts said the late-evening timing offered several potential advantages for the attackers. Security is generally more lax at that hour, as businesses prepare to close. There is less traffic in the congested city, making it easier to position a large number of attackers at disparate sites. And it allows the story to hit news cycles in Europe and North America, with global publicity a key objective among terrorists hoping to undermine stability and spread fear.
In Washington, the State Department immediately condemned the attacks, as did President-elect Barack Obama's transition team.
It was not immediately known who was behind the attacks. A previously unknown group calling itself "the Deccan Mujahideen" said it carried out the attacks, though there was no way to know whether the claim was real.
India has been hit by a succession of terrorist attacks over the past several months. Many of them were initially blamed on Islamist militants, although in recent weeks, police have pointed to a Hindu terrorist network as well, making several arrests.
Witnesses said the attackers fired automatic weapons apparently at random and made no effort to hide their identities. Experts said this suggested the attackers were prepared to die.
About midnight, more than two hours after the serial attacks began, television images from near the historic Metro Cinema showed journalists and spectators ducking for cover as gunshots rang out.
Police released a picture of a man with a serene smile wearing a blue T-shirt and holding an automatic weapon whom they identified as one of the attackers at the railway station.
At the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, firefighters used trucks to help people out of windows as other crews battled blazes on the roof. Bystanders used ornate gold-colored luggage trolleys to move bodies.
"I guess they were after foreigners because they were asking for British or American passports," said Rakesh Patel, a Briton who who was staying at the Taj Mahal on business. "They had bombs."
Patel said two young men armed with a rifle and a machine gun took 15 people hostage, forcing them to the hotel roof. He and four others slipped away in the confusion and smoke of the upper floors, he said.
The attack comes at a sensitive time for India and the region. Five Indian states are holding elections now, and a national vote is expected early next year. The opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has accused Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress Party of being soft on terrorism.
Follow developments in Mumbai at baltimoresun.com