Gunfire persists in India

The Baltimore Sun

MUMBAI, India - Security forces assaulted a Jewish center in Mumbai where Muslim militants were believed holed up with possible hostages today, with black-clad commandos dropping from an Indian helicopter as sharpshooters opened fire on the five-story building.

The attack came as Indian commandos scoured two luxury hotels room-by-room for survivors and holed-up militants, more than a day after a chain of attacks across India's financial center by suspected Muslim militants left at least 119 people dead.

At least seven foreign captives have emerged from the Oberoi hotel as the commandos continued the search.

The group, some of whom were carrying luggage with Canadian flags on, were taken away in cars without speaking to reporters.

The violence began Wednesday evening as militants invaded two luxury hotels favored by foreigners, the Taj Mahal Palace and the Oberoi, firing automatic weapons, throwing grenades and sending panicked guests scrambling for safety and trapping others inside the hotels for hours. The sporadic gunfire and explosions at the hotels dwindled overnight, indicating the siege might be winding down.

At the headquarters of the ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach group Chabad Lubavitch, a commando assault began shortly after dawn after a tense night in which six trucks of soldiers had been brought in to surround the building.

Snipers stationed in buildings opposite the center began the attack, with sustained fire on the building as at least nine commandos lowered themselves by rope onto the roof from a circling Indian air force helicopter.

Security forces searched the rooms at the hotels - two of the top gathering spots for the Mumbai elite - but there were no gunbattles or blasts. Commandos had spent much of yesterday bringing out hostages, trapped guests and corpses from the hotels in small groups while firefighters battled flames that erupted. The fires were out by today.

Ratan Tata, who runs the company that owns the elegant Taj Mahal, said they appeared to have scouted their targets in advance.

"They seem to know their way around the back office, the kitchen. There has been a considerable amount of detailed planning," he told a news conference.

The Maharashtra state home ministry said dozens of hostages had been freed from the Oberoi and dozens more were still trapped inside. More than 400 people were brought out of the Taj Mahal yesterday.

Authorities said they had killed three gunmen at the Taj.

It remained unclear just how many people had been taken hostage, how many were hiding in the hotels and how many dead lay uncounted.

A solemn Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed the nation by television yesterday evening, pledging that the militants "would not succeed in their nefarious design." Singh asserted that the group behind the attacks "was based outside the country" and warned India's neighbors "that the use of their territory for launching attacks on us will not be tolerated."

After past terrorist attacks here, Indian leaders have pointed the finger at Pakistani Islamic extremists or intelligence operatives, two forces that often team up for operations in South Asia. Pakistan's defense minister condemned the Mumbai attacks yesterday and warned India to refrain from blaming Pakistan, a longtime rival.

President George W. Bush telephoned Singh yesterday to express his condolences and offer assistance to India as it works "to restore order, provide safety to its people and comfort to the victims and their families, and investigate these despicable acts," according to a White House spokeswoman.

President-elect Barack Obama's transition team issued a statement condemning the attacks.

Several witnesses said the gunmen demanded to see passports from cornered guests, separating American and British tourists from the others.

The victims included Mumbai's anti-terrorism chief, Hemant Karkare, and two of his senior police officers, which complicated the law enforcement response to the attacks.

Witnesses said the attackers appeared to fire at random and made no effort to hide their identities, which, experts suggested, signaled a readiness to die.

Local government officials said as many as four attackers were killed and nine suspects were arrested.

Throughout the day yesterday, a series of explosions and fires continued to rage at the Taj Majal Palace, a landmark along Mumbai's waterfront since 1903. Late in the afternoon, military officials said that most, if not all, of the hostages there had been freed, adding that some guests still might be trapped in their rooms, fearful of emerging amid gunfire.

Soon after dark, numerous Indian commandos emerged from the hotel with guns pointed down, leading observers to surmise that the standoff there was over.

Officials said the commandos seized a small arsenal of weapons that included hand grenades, tear gas pistols, knives and more than 80 magazines of ammunition. Also confiscated were several credit cards with the names and pictures of suspected militants, officials said.

But the Oberoi remained a battle zone late into the day.

"Twenty to 30 people are expected to be still hostage at the Oberoi hotel," M.L. Kumawat, an Indian Home Ministry official, said at a news conference.

A previously unknown group calling itself Deccan Mujahedin said Wednesday that it carried out the attacks, but officials were unclear whether the claim was true. Yesterday, the Indian media speculated how the nation's intelligence network could have been unaware of the organization before.

Most of Mumbai remained in shock yesterday. In many neighborhoods, 80 percent of the businesses remained closed as police warned residents to stay home, where many followed the unfolding drama on television.

Once known as Bombay, the city is home to India's commodities and stock exchanges, which remained closed yesterday even as officials worried about the effect of the attacks on foreign investment.

Although Mumbai has been the scene of several terrorist attacks in recent years, experts said Wednesday's assaults required a previously unseen degree of reconnaissance and planning. The scale and synchronization of the attacks pointed to the likely involvement of experienced commanders, some observers said, suggesting possible foreign involvement.

As many as 16 groups hit nine sites on the southern flank of this crowded metropolis of 19 million people.

Among the targets were the city's domestic airport and a railway station; the Leopold Cafe, a restaurant popular with foreigners; two hospitals; a police station; and the Mumbai office of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish outreach group, Chabad Lubavitch.

There were conflicting reports about hostages at the Jewish center.

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