Mumbai: India’s prime minister pointed a finger on Thursday at “external linkages” for the attacks in Mumbai that killed more than 100 people, as militants holding hostages in a Jewish centre offered to hold talks.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke as commandos in India’s financial capital exchanged fresh fire with suspected Islamist militants inside the Taj Hotel and at the Trident-Oberoi hotel, where scores of people were trapped and some taken hostage.
Commandos had also gathered outside a Jewish centre where a rabbi is thought to have been taken hostage, but later apparently decided to hold off from an assault.
A militant holed up at the centre phoned an Indian television channel to offer talks with the government for the release of hostages, but also to complain about abuses in Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars.
“Ask the government to talk to us and we will release the hostages,” the man, identified by the India TV channel as Imran, said, speaking in Urdu in what sounded like a Kashmiri accent.
“Are you aware how many people have been killed in Kashmir? Are you aware how your army has killed Muslims. Are you aware how many of them have been killed in Kashmir this week?”
Commandos earlier freed hostages from the Taj but battled on with the Islamist militants who had launched their audacious attack after arrived 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.
Some 18 hours after the late-evening assault, soldiers and militants were still exchanging intermittent fire and more than 100 people were trapped inside rooms of the Taj Mahal hotel, a 105-year-old city landmark.
“People who were held up there, they have all been rescued,” Maharashtra state police chief A.N. Roy told NDTV news. “But there are guests in the rooms, we don’t know how many.”
A senior India home ministry official said 20-30 people could still be held hostage in the Trident/Oberoi hotel.
Prime Minister Singh said New Delhi would “take up strongly” the use of neighbours’ territory to launch attacks on India.
“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.
Indian governments have in the past blamed neighbouring Pakistan or sometimes Bangladesh for supporting or harbouring militant groups for these attacks.
“It is evident that the group that carried these attacks, based outside the country, had come with single-minded determination to create havoc in the commercial capital of the country,” Singh said.
The Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba denied any role in the attacks, and said it had no links with any Indian group.
Police said at least six foreigners were killed and another 287 people were wounded in the attacks, which were claimed by the little-known Deccan Mujahideen group.
“Release all the mujahideens, and Muslims living in India should not be troubled,” said a militant inside the Oberoi, 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.
At least two guests, trapped in their rooms in the Taj, also phoned TV stations. One said the firedoors were locked, and another said he had seen two dead 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 the Taj.
The attacks were bound to spook investors in one of Asia’s largest and fastest-growing economies.
England and India cricket boards cancelled their last two games in a seven-match series following the attacks. [nDEL211813]
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 the Cafe Leopold, a famous hangout popular with foreign tourists.
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 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.
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,” he 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. (Reporting by New Delhi and Mumbai bureaux; Writing by Simon Denyer; Editing by Alistair Scrutton & Mark Williams) REUTERS