By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 28, 2008
MUMBAI, Nov. 28 -- Indian army commandos struggled all day Thursday and into the early hours of Friday to regain control of two luxury hotels and a Jewish center in India's commercial capital, battling armed assailants who were part of a group that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said was "based outside the country."
The coordinated attacks against well-known symbols of India's prosperity and places where Westerners and Israelis gather left at least 125 people dead and more than 320 wounded, authorities said, and transformed parts of Mumbai into a smoldering war zone. Dozens of people remained trapped in the vast hotels, although it was unclear how many gunmen were still inside.
Indian police and terrorism experts said they were uncertain who had carried out the attack, but Singh, in a nationally televised address, used phrases usually taken here to mean Pakistan, raising fears that the violence in Mumbai could raise tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals.
"The group which 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. "We will take up strongly with our neighbors that the use of their territory for launching attacks on us will not be tolerated, and that there would be a cost if suitable measures are not taken by them."
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, said his government condemned the attacks in Mumbai. "It is unfair to blame Pakistan or Pakistanis for these acts of terrorism even before an investigation is undertaken," Haqqani said in a statement. "Instead of scoring political points at the expense of a neighboring country that is itself a victim of terrorism, it is time for India's leaders to work together with Pakistan's elected leaders in putting up a joint front against terrorism."
Arriving ashore in what police said were at least two rubber dinghies, groups of college-age men on Wednesday roamed the streets of Mumbai with automatic assault rifles and backpacks filled with ammunition and explosives, shooting up crowded places and taking hostages in hotels. One video shown again and again on television depicted the almost giddy face of a young gunman walking down the street with an AK-47 assault rifle.
The attackers struck targets in addition to the hotels and the Jewish center, including a movie theater, a hospital, a railway station, a cafe popular with foreigners and several other sites in the heart of Mumbai.
A British businessman, Rakesh Patel, who escaped the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel, told television stations that two young men with a machine gun forced 15 hostages onto the hotel roof and told them that "they wanted anyone with British or American passports."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert McInturff said three Americans were among those injured in the Mumbai attacks, the Associated Press reported. He said there was no indication that any U.S. citizens had been killed. The Web site of the Synchronicity Foundation, a Faber, Va.-based spiritual organization whose members were staying at one of the hotels, said two Americans in the group were feared dead and two Americans and two Canadians had been wounded by gunfire.
Five non-Indians -- an Australian, a Briton, a German, an Italian and a Japanese -- were reported killed.
"All we can say now is this is the worst, most brazen, audacious attacks in Indian history because people were shooting openly on the street," police official A.K. Sharma said. He spoke Thursday at the funeral of a police inspector who was killed while trying to stop gunmen at the train station. "It's a violent situation that's still ongoing. Mumbai remains at war."
As the sun set Thursday, some hostages unfurled "Save Us" banners from the windows of the Taj, across from the Gateway of India monument and Mumbai's waterfront. Others emerged from upper-story windows using bedsheets tied together as ladders. Earlier in the day, at least four bodies and dozens of freed hostages were taken out of the hotel -- a castlelike, 1903 landmark that was set on fire during the attacks.
Into the evening, smoke billowed from the roof of the Oberoi, also known as the Trident hotel, where commandos attempted hostage rescues on the 19th floor. The sounds of gunfire and two explosions emanated from the hotel as they worked through the night. Ten people emerged from the hotel and quickly left the scene.
In television reports, guests trapped at the Oberoi were shown peering through curtains and using tape to write the words "save me" on their windows.
Officials said eight Israelis and a young American rabbi and his wife were being held hostage at the Mumbai headquarters of Chabad Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish outreach group. As day broke Friday, black-clad commandos were dropping onto the five-story center from a helicopter as sharpshooters opened fire.
The violence began as Indians and tourists went about their lives in a metropolis known for its vibrancy.
Shabir Sayed, 30, was buying a pack of cigarettes outside the packed Leopold Cafe on Wednesday night when he heard gunfire and saw men in black hooded sweatshirts with guns. "I saw the gunmen, and they were young men, in jeans with assault rifles. We were so scared. People were ducking under their tables," he said.
With a camera swinging from his neck, Shane Martens, 25, had just arrived from Ireland and was headed to bed in his guest room above the cafe when he heard "huge bangs going off, which at first I thought was just the noise of the horns and firecrackers of India. But then you could hear the screaming."
He ran downstairs to find the recently festive cafe -- where earlier in the evening he had downed a few beers and a bowl of noodles -- in total mayhem. "People huddled together. Shards of glass and food and drinks were knocked down," Martens said. "Everyone was terrified."
More than 10 people at the cafe were shot, witnesses said.
Blocks away, gunmen began shooting through windows and into the narrow alleyways near the Jewish center.
Sanjay Kokate, a local political leader who said he was part of a self-appointed citizens police force, said he saw random shooting coming from the Jewish center and later realized that several residents had been shot in their living rooms and kitchens.
"We heard bang-bang in the alleyway and first thought it was firecrackers. But then we heard horrible grief, and a woman ran out covered in the blood of her mother," said Kokate, who was guarding the area, a stick swinging from his arm. "We saw two older women were shot dead while cooking dinner in their kitchens," he said. "We helped carry the bodies out. People have been trapped inside their apartments ever since. It's so horrifying."
The center is run by Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka. The couple's 2-year-old son was escorted out of the building several hours after the attack, his clothing soaked in blood, the AP reported. The toddler was accompanied by a cook and another employee of the center.
John Abraham, an assistant desk manager at a sister hotel of the Taj, said he spent the night helping shaken guests get out of the Taj. He also learned that three of his friends had been killed while cooking in the hotel kitchen.
"People come from villages to take photos with this hotel," said Abraham, 25. "This is a dent in Indian pride. But for me personally it means a loss of several really close friends. Just the other day, I was making plans to see a movie with him this weekend. In my head, I feel like he is still alive. Right now I am like a robot, just trying to get through this."