MUMBAI, India – Coordinated groups of gunmen shot and blasted their way through tourist sites in the Indian financial center of Mumbai late Wednesday and early today, killing at least 101 people and wounding more than 200 while apparently targeting American and British citizens for use as hostages.
The attackers swept through 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. Some were trapped inside the hotels for hours, even as a series of explosions set fire to the Taj hotel, an icon of Mumbai’s waterfront.
Although Mumbai has been the scene of several terrorist attacks in recent years, experts said Wednesday’s assault 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 said, suggesting possible foreign involvement.
Launching their assault after dark, the terrorists struck almost simultaneously at the city’s domestic airport, a railway station and sprayed gunfire at the Cafe Leopold, a restaurant popular with foreigners.
In all, up to 16 groups hit nine sites on the southern flank of this crowded metropolis of 20 million.
Mumbai is south Asia’s financial hub and an entertainment capital, with many of the glitzy targets symbolizing the new, cosmopolitan face of the world’s largest democracy.
Several witnesses said the gunmen demanded to see passports from cornered guests, separating American and British tourists from the others. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said U.S. officials were not aware of any American casualties but were still checking.
In the chaos and confusion, it was difficult to confirm details or determine the state of hostages apparently being held on several floors of the damaged hotels. India’s NDTV news network reported the gunmen were holding more than a dozen foreigners, including a Belgian and an Indonesian.
A previously unknown group calling itself Deccan Mujahideen said it carried out the attack, though experts warned that the claim might be a hoax. Mumbai and other Indian cities have suffered a spate of terrorist attacks in recent years, most of which the Indian government has blamed on Muslim extremists
Previous terrorist attacks have usually been bombs left in public spaces such as markets and parks, causing indiscriminate casualties. In sharp contrast, Wednesday’s attacks were a brazen, frontal assault using automatic weapons.
The targets included police headquarters in south Mumbai, where some officers were pinned down by gunfire. And the victims included Mumbai’s head of anti-terrorism, Hemant Karkare, and two of his senior police officers, complicating the Indian response.
Television footage showed Karkare donning a flak jacket and helmet minutes before heading into one of the hotels.
Witnesses said the attackers fired apparently at random and made no effort to hide their identities which, experts suggested, signaled a readiness to die. 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.
Local government officials said up to four attackers were killed and nine arrested.
Terrorism experts said the late-evening timing offered several potential advantages for the attackers. Security is generally more lax at this time as businesses prepare to close. There’s 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.
Near the Vile Parle station of the city’s Western train line, a bomb went off in a taxi on the highway around 10 p.m.
An hour later, parts of the vehicle could be seen scattered up to 100 feet away. Four injured people nearby were taken to the hospital.
Within minutes, police were cordoning off all major roads, stopping even emergency vehicles amid reports that two attackers had hijacked a police van.
Friends and guests told reporters they received frantic calls from loved ones hiding under beds and tables in darkened hotel rooms hoping to avoid notice.
An Indian travel agent gave a harrowing first-hand account of the Mumbai attacks in a phone conversation Wednesday night with the director of a London-based security think tank.
The Indian was in the Harbor Bar of the Taj Mahal Hotel with European visitors when the shooting started.
He described the gunmen as ruthless and determined and said they demanded to know who the British and Americans were, according to M.J. Gohel, the director of the Asia-Pacific Foundation.
The gunmen carried automatic weapons, according to the account described by Gohel, who is of Indian descent and has expertise on South Asian extremist groups.
“My friend managed to get away, the staff shepherded them into a conference room about six hours ago,” Gohel said at about 10 p.m. London time.
“The last I heard they are still locked down there. It is believed the terrorists are still inside – they may have hostages; they may be on the roof of the hotel.”
During intermittent calls to London from his hiding place, the travel agent said the attackers seemed focused on British and American guests and “did not seem to be interested in French and Germans,” Gohel said.