Saturday, November 29, 2008

Siege at Taj Mahal hotel over in India, death toll up to 195

MUMBAI, India — Indian commandos killed the last remaining gunmen holed up at a luxury Mumbai hotel Saturday, ending a 60-hour rampage through India's financial capital by suspected Islamic militants that killed 195 people and rocked the nation.

Orange flames and black smoke engulfed the landmark 565-room Taj Mahal hotel after dawn Saturday as Indian forces ended the siege in a hail of gunfire, just hours after elite commandos stormed a Jewish center and found six hostages dead.

A dozen suspected terrorists hit 10 sites around Mumbai on Wednesday night, and the last holdout was the Taj hotel. "There were three terrorists, we have killed them," said J.K. Dutt, director general of India's elite National Security Guard commando unit.

At least 16 foreigners and 20 soldiers and police were among the dead. Some 295 people were also wounded in the violence.

Explosions continued to rock the hotel after the battle as soldiers blasted open doors and detonated explosives found on the gunmen as they swept the hotel once more looking for survivors and booby traps left by the militants.

Some hotel guests were still believed to be in their rooms. "They are still scared, so even when we request them to come out and identify ourselves, they are naturally afraid," said Dutt.

Outside, anxious relatives stood in groups hoping family members trapped inside would walk out. Many had been keeping a vigil since the attack began.

With the end of one of the most brazen terror attacks in India's history, attention turned from the military operation to questions of who was behind the attack and the heavy toll on human life.

The bodies of New York Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, were found at the Jewish center. Their son, Moshe, who turned 2 on Saturday, was scooped up by an employee Thursday as she fled the building. Two Israelis and another American were also killed in the house, said Rabbi Zalman Schmotkin, a spokesman for the Chabad Lubavitch movement, which ran the center.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry later said the body of an unidentified third woman was also found inside the five-story building.

Among the foreigners killed were Americans, Germans, Canadians, Israelis and nationals from Britain, Italy, Japan, China, Thailand, Australia and Singapore.

By Saturday morning the death toll was at 195, the deadliest attack in India since the 1993 serial bombings in Mumbai killed 257 people. But officials said the toll from the three days of carnage was likely to rise as more bodies were brought out of the hotels.

Even as the battle ended, Indians began burying their dead, many of them security force members killed fighting the gunmen.

In the southern city of Bangalore, black-clad commandos formed an honor guard as the flag-draped coffin of Maj. Gen. Unnikrishnan, who was killed in the fighting at the Taj, passed by. "He gave up his own life to save the others," said Dutt.

Bhushan Gagrani, the Maharashtra state government spokesman, told The Associated Press at least 11 gunmen had been killed and one captured alive after the attack that shook the city and the country.

"There is a limit a city can take. This is a very, very different kind of fear. It will be sometime before things get back to normal," said Ayesha Dar, a 33-year-old homemaker.

Authorities scrambled to identify those responsible for the unprecedented attack, with Indian officials pointing across the border at rival Pakistan, and Pakistani leaders promising to cooperate in the investigation. A team of FBI agents was ordered to fly to India to help investigate.

The attack was claimed by a previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen, but Indian officials pointed the finger at neighboring Pakistan.

On Saturday the Indian navy said it was investigating whether a trawler found drifting off the coast of Mumbai, with a bound corpse on board, was used in the attack.

Navy spokesman Capt. Manohar Nambiar said the trawler, called "Kuber," was found Thursday and brought to Mumbai. Television footage showed a bound body lying face down on the deck.

Media reports said the man was the boat's skipper and had been killed when the trawler was hijacked after it sailed from Karachi, Pakistan. That could not be immediately confirmed.

Indian security officers believe many of the gunmen may have reached the city from a boat using a black and yellow rubber dinghy found near the site of the attacks.

India's foreign minister said the blame appeared to point to Pakistan. "According to preliminary information, some elements in Pakistan are responsible for Mumbai terror attacks," Pranab Mukherjee told reporters.

Jaiprakash Jaiswal, India's home minister, said the captured gunmen had been identified as Pakistani.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani insisted on Friday that his country was not involved. On Saturday Pakistan withdrew a pledge to send its spy chief to India to help probe the attacks.

Zahid Bashir, a spokesman for Gilani, told The Associated Press on Saturday a lower-ranking intelligence official would travel instead.

President-elect Barack Obama said he was closely monitoring 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," he said in a statement.

The attackers were well-prepared, apparently scouting some targets ahead of time and carrying large bags of almonds to keep up their energy during a long siege. One backpack found contained 400 rounds of ammunition.

India has been shaken repeatedly by terror attacks blamed on Muslim militants in recent years, but this was more sophisticated - and more brazen.

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