Commandos ended a siege at the luxury Oberoi hotel yesterday, while other forces rappelled from helicopters to storm a besieged Jewish center two days after a chain of militant attacks across India’s financial center left at least 143 people dead and the city in panic.
While explosions and gunfire continued intermittently at the elegant Taj Mahal hotel yesterday afternoon, officials said commandos had killed two gunmen inside the nearby Oberoi hotel and ended the siege there.
“The hotel is under our control,” JK Dutt, director general of India’s elite National Security Guard commando unit, told reporters, adding that 24 bodies had been found.
Dozens of people — including a man clutching a baby — had been evacuated from the Oberoi earlier yesterday.
Indian commandos emerged from the Mumbai Jewish center with their assault rifles raised yesterday evening and police said the siege was over.
There was no word on the fate of the hostages believed to be inside.
Police spoke on condition of anonymity in line with policy.
The airborne assault on the center run by the ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach group Chabad Lubavitch was punctuated by gunshots and explosions — and at one point an intense exchange of fire that lasted several minutes — as forces cleared it floor by floor, a reporter at the scene said. By yesterday afternoon, the commandos had control of the top two floors.
One camouflaged commando came out with a bandage on his forehead, while soldiers fired smoke grenades into the building and a steady stream of gunfire reverberated across narrow alleys.
Israel’s ambassador to India, Mark Sofer, said they believed there were up to nine hostages inside.
Sofer denied reports that Israeli commandos were taking part in the operation.
Moshe Holtzberg, a two-year-old who was smuggled out of the center by an employee, is now with his grandparents. His grandfather told Israel Radio yesterday that he had no news of Moshe’s parents.
More than 143 people were killed and 288 injured when suspected Islamic militants attacked 10 sites in Mumbai that started on Wednesday evening.
The group rescued from the Oberoi, many holding passports, included at least two Americans, a Briton, two Japanese nationals and several Indians. Some carried luggage with Canadian flags. One man in a chef’s uniform was holding a small baby. About 20 airline crew members were freed, including staff from Lufthansa and Air France.
“I’m going home, I’m going to see my wife,” said Mark Abell, with a huge smile on his face after emerging from the hotel.
Abell, from Britain, had locked himself in his room during the siege.
“These people here have been fantastic, the Indian authorities, the hotel staff. I think they are a great advertisement for their country,” he said.
The well-coordinated strikes by small bands of gunmen starting on Wednesday night left the city shell-shocked.
Late on Thursday, after about 400 people had been brought out of the Taj hotel, officials said it had been cleared of gunmen. But yesterday morning, army commanders said that while three gunmen had been killed, two to three more were still inside with about 15 civilians.
A few hours after that, Thamburaj, the security official, said at least one gunman was still alive inside the hotel and had cut off electricity on the floor where he was hiding. Shortly after that announcement, another round of explosions and gunfire were heard coming from the hotel.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed “external forces” for the violence — a phrase sometimes used to refer to Pakistani militants, whom Indian authorities often blame for attacks.
Yesterday, India’s foreign minister ratcheted up the accusations over the attacks.
“According to preliminary information, some elements in Pakistan are responsible for [the] Mumbai terror attacks,” Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee told reporters in the city of Jodhpur.
“Proof cannot be disclosed at this time,” he said, adding that Pakistan had assured New Delhi it would not allow its territory to be used for attacks against India.
India has long accused Islamabad of allowing militant Muslim groups, particularly those fighting in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, to train and take shelter in Pakistan. Mukherjee’s carefully phrased comments appeared to indicate he was accusing Pakistan-based groups of staging the attack, not Pakistan itself.
Earlier yesterday, Pakistani Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar, in Islamabad, denied involvement by his country: “I will say in very categoric terms that Pakistan is not involved in these gory incidents.”
The gunmen were well-prepared, apparently scouting some targets ahead of time and carrying large bags of almonds to keep up their energy.
“It’s obvious they were trained somewhere ... Not everyone can handle the AK series of weapons or throw grenades like that,” an unidentified member of India’s Marine Commando unit told reporters, his face wrapped in a black mask.
He said the men were “very determined and remorseless.”
A US investigative team was heading to Mumbai, a State Department official said on Thursday evening, speaking on condition of anonymity because the US and Indian governments were still working out final details.
Among the dead were two Australians and a Japanese, the state home ministry said. An Italian, a Briton and a German were also killed, their foreign ministries said.
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