Mumbai: Mumbai’s long night of gunfire extended well into Thursday night, with military commandos still trying to flush out terrorists from the Trident hotel and Nariman House, which houses a Jewish centre.
They had earlier succeeded in killing or detaining terrorists holed up in The Taj Mahal hotel. Commandos and terrorists were exchanging fire, parts of both hotels were on fire, and some hostages in the Trident as well as others seemingly trapped in both the hotels were yet to be rescued at the time this paper went to print. The commandos were set for a final assault at the Trident and Nariman House late Thursday evening.
A previously unheard of Islamist group, the Deccan Mujaheedin, claimed responsibility for the attacks in 11 places in south Mumbai that saw at least 101 people dead, and some 287 wounded. The attacks specifically targeted British, Americans and Israelis, in addition to Indians. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on national television late Thursday afternoon that the attacks were well planned and probably had “external linkages”. “The well-planned and well-orchestrated attacks, probably with external linkages, were intended to create a sense of terror by choosing high-profile targets,” Singh said in an address to the nation. He said that New Delhi would “take up strongly” the use of neighbours’ territory to launch attacks on India.
Indian governments have in the past blamed Pakistan or sometimes Bangladesh for supporting or harbouring militant groups for these attacks.
“It is evident that the group that carried (out) these attacks, based outside the country, had come with single-minded determination to create havoc in the commercial capital of the country,” Singh said. Commandos earlier freed hostages from the Taj, but battled on with the Islamist militants who had launched their audacious attack after arriving by boats in Mumbai on Wednesday. The gunmen had fanned out in the heart of the city, firing indiscriminately, and attacking luxury hotels, a landmark cafe, hospitals and a railway station.
Police said at least six foreigners were killed in the attacks, credit for which was claimed by the Deccan Mujahideen group. “Release all the Mujahideens, and Muslims living in India should not be troubled,” said a militant inside the Trident, speaking to Indian television by telephone.
The man, who identified himself only as Sahadullah, said he was one of seven attackers inside the hotel, and wanted Islamist militants to be freed from Indian jails.
Later, an explosion was heard at the hotel, a witness said, reported Reuters.
At least two guests, trapped in their rooms in the Taj, also phoned television stations. One said the firedoors were locked, and another said he had seen two bodies by the swimming pool.
“Two of my colleagues are still in there and the last we heard from them was three hours ago and then the phone battery died,” said a German national who escaped from the Taj. The attacks were bound to spook investors in one of Asia’s largest and fastest growing economies.
Mumbai has seen several major bomb attacks in the past, but never anything so obviously targeted at foreigners.
Authorities closed stock, bond and foreign exchange markets, and the central bank said it would continue auctions to keep cash flowing through interbank lending markets, which seized up after the global financial crisis.
The militants struck at the heart of Mumbai’s financial and tourist centre on Wednesday, with one of the first targets being the Café Leopold, a famous hangout popular with foreign tourists. They fired automatic weapons indiscriminately and threw grenades before settling in for a long siege at the Taj and the Trident.
“There could be 100-200 people inside the (Trident) hotel, but we cannot give you the exact figure as many people have locked themselves inside their rooms,” Maharashtra state deputy chief minister R.R. Patil told reporters.
“There could be 10-12 terrorists inside the hotel,” he said. “There are no negotiations with the terrorists.”
The attackers appeared to target British and Americans as they sought hostages. Israelis were also among the hostages, a television channel reported, while police said an Israeli rabbi was also being held by gunmen in a Mumbai apartment. Witnesses said the attackers were young South Asian men in their early 20s, most likely Indians, speaking Hindi or Urdu. Television footage showed gunmen in a pick-up truck spraying people with rifle fire as the vehicle drove down a Mumbai street.
Hotel staff evacuated the wounded on luggage trolleys, with passers-by covered in blood after they rushed to help. Some clambered down ladders to safety.
The attacks could be another blow for the Congress party-led government ahead of a general election due by early 2009, with the party already under fire for failing to prevent a string of bomb attacks on Indian cities.
Opposition leader L.K. Advani cancelled plans to campaign for ongoing state elections and prepared to visit the city, PTI reported.
Strategic expert Uday Bhaskar said the attacks could inflame tensions between Hindus and Muslims.
“The fact that they were trying to segregate British and American passport holders definitely suggests Islamist fervour,” Bhaskar said.
Police said they had shot dead four gunmen and arrested nine suspects. They said 12 policemen were killed, including Hemant Karkare, the chief of the police anti-terrorist squad in Mumbai.
Schools were closed and a curfew was imposed around the Gateway of India, a colonial-era monument. But train services were running as normal taking people to work in the stunned city.
Rakesh Patel, a British witness who was staying at the Taj Mahal hotel on business, said the attackers were looking for British and US passport holders. “They came from the restaurant and took us up the stairs. They had bombs. Young boys, maybe 20 years old, 25 years old. They had two guns,” he told the NDTV channel, smoke stains covering his face.
An Australian, an Italian and a Japanese national were among those killed in the attacks, their governments said. Reuters
A Mint staff writer contributed to this story.