Taj Mahal burns; hostages taken
MUMBAI, India – Gunmen attacked luxury hotels, a hospital, a train station, a movie theater and other buildings in Mumbai late Wednesday, killing at least 101 people and wounding as many as 300 more in a rampage through India’s financial capital, police said.
The attackers took dozens of people hostage, and witnesses said they were seeking out Americans and Britons. An unknown group asserted responsibility in e-mails to India’s news media.
The gunmen, armed with explosives, lay siege to two of the hotels all night. Troops stormed in to rescue people, some of them foreign nationals, trapped inside. The 105-year-old Moorish-styled rooftop dome of the landmark Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel was engulfed in fire, and flames billowed out of many rooms. One wing of the waterfront hotel was gutted. Seven hours after the first attack, firemen rescued more than 50 hotel guests and escorted them to ambulances.
Officials said at least six militants had also been killed since the overnight attacks began around 9:30 p.m.
The attacks occurred in the affluent southern quarters that are the heart of the financial district of this city of 15 million people. Hospitals were overwhelmed and sent out appeals for blood donations. Police said parts of the city remained under siege as of dawn today. Guests were still trapped inside the 36-floor Oberoi Trident hotel, possibly as hostages. Commandos tried to storm the hotel and police battled the gunmen as hotel guests signaled to firemen from their room windows. The third hotel to be attacked was the Ramada, to the north.
The identity of the attackers was not clear. A group calling itself the Deccan Mujaheddin asserted responsibility for the attacks in the e-mails. Intelligence officials said they thought it was a new group and were unsure of its aims or identity.
R.R. Patil, chief of internal security for the state of Maharashtra, said the gunmen came from the sea around 9 p.m. local time Wednesday, and a boat laden with explosives was later seized by police. About 9:25 p.m., eyewitnesses told reporters, two men with automatic weapons started firing outside the popular Leopold Cafe, after which the attackers moved toward the Taj Mahal hotel, firing at random as they moved to the city’s main train station. Local trains were suspended after a high-security alert, and the police cordoned off the area, which is usually packed with night revelers at street food vendors and cafes. The hotel evacuated many guests, some of whom could be seen wheeling out their luggage, while some others fled down the fire escape in bathrobes.
Witnesses told reporters that the gunmen initially asked for Americans and Britons.
“They were young boys, maybe 20 to 25 years old. They basically were saying they wanted anyone with British and American passports,” said a Briton quoted by the Times Now television channel. “There were about 15 people, about half of which were foreigners. We went to the 18th floor. It became very smoky, and we escaped and ran down the stairs. They had guns, one machine gun and one rifle gun. They were in jeans and T-shirts. Just normal, casual.”
A 34-year-old businessman, Ashish Jain, said in a phone interview that he was having dinner with his friends at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, “Souk.”
“When I paid the bill and tried to leave, the hotel staff said there were terrorists in the lobby and that we could not leave. There were 150 of us on the rooftop, including some foreign nationals,” he said. “It was really alarming to be trapped there for over four hours. We could feel the building shake with the explosions. We could see the smoke and the fire. People were panicking and crying. And finally the army and the police came and secured the fire escape exit, and we could get out.”
An image of a gunman broadcast on television showed a young man with curly hair, a blue rucksack slung over his shoulder, wielding an AK-47 assault rifle, and wearing a black half-sleeved T-shirt and jeans.
Another security camera image captured at the train station showed two young men wearing jackets and backpacks, each carrying a weapon. The floors of the station were stained with blood where the gunmen had fired at the crowd.
Officials confirmed that two attackers were killed, and nine suspects detained. Eleven policemen, including the chief of Mumbai’s counter-terrorism squad, Hemant Karkare, died in the fighting at the hotels.
Since May, a wave of bombings has ripped through public places in several Indian cities, killing more than 200 people. Some of the bombings were followed by claims of responsibility from a group calling itself the Indian Mujaheddin.
“Who they are is a matter that is still under investigation, because our first priority is to rescue the people trapped inside the two hotels. We do not have correct knowledge about how many people are still trapped. People are still inside their rooms,” said Vilasrao Deshmukh, the chief minister of Maharashtra at a press conference in Mumbai. He also denied that foreign nationals were specifically targeted. “It is not right to say that they were only targeting foreigners. Most of the people killed were Indians.”
In Washington, U.S. intelligence officials were monitoring developments in India while analysts studied the attacks for signatures of known terrorist groups. The starting assumption was that the attacks were linked to Islamic extremists, though not necessarily al-Qaida or other well-known groups. “The sophistication of the attacks and the choice of targets put Islamic extremists at the top of the list,” said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official. “They are the most natural suspects.”
But the official noted that the Indian government has been targeted numerous groups, some of which have mounted suicide attacks against public buildings. “It is still an unfolding situation, and any hard and fast conclusions would be premature,” said the counterterrorism official, who insisted on anonymity.
A brave girl jumps from the rocks on the west side of Tubbs Hill as her two friends watch. (Don Sausser/Facebook photo)
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