By Emily Wax and Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 29, 2008
MUMBAI, Nov. 29 -- Security forces brought a three-day assault on India's financial and cultural capital to an end Saturday morning, killing the last remaining gunmen holed up in one of the city's luxury hotels after freeing hostages and recovering bodies from two hotels and a Jewish center Friday.
Pakistani officials, responding to charges by Indian leaders that the attack was carried out by an organization with ties to Pakistan, said a senior intelligence officer would travel to India, in an apparent attempt to ease tensions between the two nuclear-armed states.
Indian officials said they now believe that at least 15 gunmen carried out the operation after reaching Mumbai by sea. After an interrogation of one of the attackers, Indian intelligence officials said they suspected that a Pakistani Islamist group, Lashkar-i-Taiba, was responsible. An Indian intelligence document from 2006 obtained by The Washington Post said members of the group had been trained in maritime assault.
Authorities said that the death toll had risen to 195 as more bodies were discovered and that 295 people were wounded, the Associated Press reported, in attacks on the hotels, the Jewish center and several other sites in Mumbai. Among the dead were two Americans from Virginia; the American rabbi who ran the city's Chabad-Lubavitch center and his Israeli wife; and three of their visitors, including an American man, an Israeli woman and a man with U.S. and Israeli citizenship. In all, 16 non-Indians have been reported killed.
Explosions from fighting at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel could be heard outside the hotel early Saturday morning, and flames and thick, inky-black smoke were seen pouring from the first floor.
Every crisis has its defining images. In Mumbai's massacre, it was the elegant Taj engulfed in flames. "It hurts my heart. It's like India itself is on fire," said Sanjay Jadhu, 43, a firefighter at the landmark hotel who was covered in soot.
Freed hostages said that many of those trapped did not come face to face with the gunmen but hid after hearing explosions and gunfire and receiving text messages and calls from loved ones telling them what was happening.
"It was such a scary ordeal when you hear grenades going off and shooting outside your hotel room," said Philip Meyer, a French businessman who wheeled his luggage out of the Oberoi hotel on Friday and rubbed his eyes, bright pink from two days without sleep, before rushing into a taxi. "My two children were calling me nonstop. I was so scared."
Sanjay Vaswani, associate director of Kroll, a private risk assessment and security firm, said he was sending a flurry of text messages to high-level business clients who were trapped inside the Oberoi. Vaswani said he had been at the site for 48 hours. "We have never seen anything as drastic as this," he said, watching as a stream of freed hostages rushed onto buses. "We tried to be in minute-to-minute touch, telling them to stay down, don't do any sudden moves."
Mumbai Police Commissioner Hassan Ghafoor said that police teams had found 41 of the dead inside the Oberoi by midnight Friday and that room-to-room searches were continuing.
Indian officials told reporters that two captured gunmen were British citizens of Pakistani origin. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and other officials said that they had not been informed that Britons had been arrested but added that investigations were continuing.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi warned India not to "be jingoist" in making accusations about the attackers' origins, and said the two countries "are facing a common enemy, and we have to join hands to defeat this enemy."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke by telephone Friday with President-elect Barack Obama for the third time since the attacks began to update him on information coming from India. Obama's staff has set up a group of transition officials at the State Department and the president-elect's Chicago headquarters to monitor the situation.
"These terrorists who targeted innocent civilians will not defeat India's great democracy, nor shake the will of a global coalition to defeat them," Obama said in a statement. "The United States must stand with India and all nations and people who are committed to destroying terrorist networks, and defeating their hate-filled ideology."
Indian intelligence officials said the gunmen who launched the coordinated attacks appeared well trained and well prepared. The assailants seemed familiar with the layouts of the two hotels and the Jewish center, giving them a tactical advantage over the police and Indian army troops sent in to dislodge them.
"This is a big-scale operation, but it is not beyond the capability of Lashkar-i-Taiba," said the intelligence officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of his work. "The person we have caught is a foot soldier; he is from Pakistan's Punjab," the officer said, referring to a region divided by the India-Pakistan border.
"He has clearly said he is with Lashkar and that he was trained," the officer said. "They came via a ship. They hijacked a boat called Kuber, shot the man in charge on the boat. They were carrying a CD with the photographs of all the targets of the site, details. It is clear that they were determined to target India's iconic locations and deter foreign investment."
The Times of India, also citing police interrogation of a captured attacker, reported Saturday that several had lived in Mumbai a few months ago, pretending to be students, and conducted reconnaissance of the Oberoi and Taj hotels.
A December 2006 letter written by a Mumbai Intelligence Bureau official and obtained by The Post says that hundreds of operatives from Lashkar-i-Taiba had received maritime training.
Members of the group "are being trained to handle large boats, laying of mines in coastal zones and planting of explosives under dams, bridges, ships etc.," says the letter, which was marked "secret."
"[T]hey are being taught navigational techniques, rescue operations, surveillance methods, concealment of explosives and underwater attack on enemy's coastal targets/vessels," the letter says.
Sriprakash Jaiswal, minister of state for home affairs, told reporters Friday that India's state governments were warned to boost coastal security two years ago. "But now with the new challenges, we will have to deal with this issue on a war footing," he said.
At a news conference in Mumbai, a marine commando, his face masked with a black handkerchief, said those who attacked the 400-room Taj were "very, very familiar with the hotel layout."
"We do not know the layout of hotels, and hence we had to find our way," the commando added. "There was blood all over the floor, bodies lying strewn in the blood.
"They were a very, very determined lot. They were moving from one place to the other," the commando said. "When we entered, there were three to four terrorists inside. Not everybody can fire AK-47 weapons like that. They were trained somewhere."
Police found backpacks at the Taj filled with rounds of ammunition and grenades, commandos said. In a room used by an attacker, police recovered credit cards from different banks and an identity card from Mauritius, an island nation off Africa's southeastern coast.
At least one commando was killed in the raid at Nariman House, the complex where the Chabad-Lubavitch center is situated. Before the raid, India's government blacked out all television news channels in Mumbai for nearly an hour, to prevent attackers from seeing coverage showing the positions of security forces.
Indian news agencies reported late Friday that Israel had criticized India's handling of the hostage crisis at Nariman House, after India spurned Israel's offer of military aid to help bring a quick end to the crisis.
By midday Friday, 98 people had been released from the Oberoi. Most looked tired after two sleepless nights barricaded behind locked doors as gunmen roamed the halls. The survivors were ushered onto air-conditioned tourist buses as police tried to hold back the scrum of reporters with video cameras.
Clutching luggage and cellphones, some peered through the bus's curtained windows. Several wept, tissues to their eyes. A man and a woman were bundled into a cab, each cradling a poodle.
Questions started to be raised about the failure to react swiftly enough, and many residents and opposition political leaders started to blame the government.
"The government has lost human lives here," said Raj Purohit, a local political opposition leader who was pacing at the site of the Nariman House. "It's a huge failure."
Lakshmi reported from New Delhi. Staff writer Debbi Wilgoren in Washington and special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.