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Indian Forces Battle Militants in Effort to Free Hostages After Terror Attacks

BY Admin  November 27, 2008 at 2:30 PM EDT

Fire at the Taj hotel in Mumbai; AP photo

Media reports emerged Thursday afternoon that the commando teams had begun to take full command of at least one of the hotels while sporadic fighting continued in a bid to find the remaining gunmen.

The rescue operations were punctuated by frequent gunshots and new reports of explosions and fires at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel and the Trident-Oberoi hotel. Hostages and several bodies emerged from the buildings as the day wore on, Reuters reported.

“The safety of the people trapped is very important,” A. N. Roy, a senior police officer told the Associated Press. “It will take time but it will be completed successfully,” he said.

Police said 110 people were killed and 300 injured, according to the AP. Officials said eight militants were also killed.

In all, the attackers targeted a reported 10 sites in a coordinated series of bold assaults throughout the city, including the two posh hotels, Mumbai’s largest train station, a popular restaurant, a hospital and a Jewish center.

Some two dozen militants in their early 20s, heavily armed with automatic rifles and grenades reportedly came ashore in a small boat on Wednesday and systematically fanned out across Mumbai’s financial center.

Ratan Tata, who runs the company that owns the posh Taj Mahal hotel,told reporters the attackers appeared to have scouted their targets well in advance.

“They seem to know their way around the back office, the kitchen. There has been a considerable amount of detailed planning,” he said at a press conference.

The attackers appeared to seek out Americans and Britons during their assaults. At least six foreigners, including one Australian, an Italian and a Japanese national were killed in the attacks, Reuters reported.

About 10 to 12 gunmen remain holed up inside the hotels and the Jewish center, a top Indian general told the AP early Thursday. The remaining gunmen appeared to have been killed or captured, Maj. Gen. R.K. Huda told New Delhi Television.

“We can say, this is the worst most brazen attacks in Indian history because people were shooting openly on the street,” police official A.K. Sharma told the Washington Post. He was speaking at the funeral of a police inspector, who was killed Wednesday night while trying to stop the attack at the busy Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station.

Commandos also gathered outside the Chabad House Jewish center where a rabbi is thought to have been taken hostage, but later apparently decided to hold off from an assault amid reports that militants inside the center were trying to engage in talks with the government.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed outside groups or “external linkages” for playing a role in the attacks, which were larger in scale and organization than other attacks India has suffered in recent years.

“The well-planned and well-orchestrated attacks, probably with external linkages, were intended to create a sense of panic, by choosing high profile targets and indiscriminately killing foreigners,” Singh said in an address to the nation.

He said the perpetrators were based “outside the country” and India would not tolerate “neighbors” who provide a haven to militants, according to the BBC.

Previous attacks in India have stirred long-held tensions with neighboring Pakistan.

The Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has been blamed for past bombings in India, denied any role in the attacks, the BBC reported.

An unknown group called the Deccan Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the attack in a series of e-mails to Indian media organizations.

“Release all the mujahideens, and Muslims living in India should not be troubled,” a militant inside the Oberoi told Indian television by telephone, according to Reuters.

Another militant reportedly holed up in the Jewish center 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 told an Indian TV channel, according to Reuters. “Are you aware how many people have been killed in Kashmir? Are you aware how your army has killed Muslims?”

Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at the RAND Corporation, told the New York Times that the true identity of the terrorists could not yet be known. She told the Times the style of the attacks suggested the militants were likely to be Indian Muslims and not linked to Al Qaeda or Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Other analysts disagreed. Sajjan Gohel, a security expert in London, told the Times that the Deccan Mujahideen was likely a “front name” and that the attacks likely point to “an Islamic Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group.”

President Bush expressed condolences to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Thursday for the attacks condemning these “despicable acts.”

“President Bush spoke this morning by telephone” to the Indian leader, press secretary Dana Perino said, saying the president wanted to express “solidarity with the people of India” in the wake of the bloodshed.

It was not immediately known whether American citizens were among the dead, but authorities in India have said some U.S. citizens and British citizens, particularly, were targets and were among those taken hostage.

MSNBC reported that at least three Americans had been injured in the attacks, according to information from the State Department.

Mumbai has been hit repeatedly by terror attacks since March 1993, when Muslim underworld figures tied to Pakistani militants allegedly carried out a series of bombings on Mumbai’s stock exchange, trains, hotels and gas stations. Authorities say those attacks, which killed 257 people and wounded more than 1,100, were carried out to revenge the deaths of hundreds of Muslims in religious riots which had swept India.

A decade later in 2003, 52 people were killed in Mumbai bombings blamed on Muslim militants and in July 2007 a series of seven blasts ripped through railway trains and commuter rail stations. At least 187 died in those attacks.

Relations between Hindus, who make up more than 80 percent of India’s 1 billion population, and Muslims, who make up about 14 percent, have sporadically erupted into bouts of sectarian violence since British-ruled India was split into independent India and Pakistan in 1947.