AFP : Special forces launch assault on Mumbai hostage-takers

Friday, November 28, 2008

Special forces launch assault on Mumbai hostage-takers

November 28, 2008

MUMBAI (AFP) — Special forces stormed a Mumbai Jewish centre and battled to free guests trapped at two luxury hotels Friday, as India reeled from an audacious Islamic militant attack that left 130 people dead.

More than 36 hours after the brazen assault, security forces were carrying out what they called "mopping up" operations at the two hotels. It was not known how many people were trapped at the three locations.

At least 17 black-clad commandos were seen abseiling from a helicopter into the Jewish centre, one of around a dozen sites attacked by gunmen on Wednesday night in an assault aimed at gaining maximum media attention.

Israeli forces were believed to be involved in the rescue attempt at the Jewish centre. "The Israelis are the ones who are running the show," one diplomatic source told AFP.

Witnesses gave dramatic descriptions of young gunmen wearing jeans and T-shirts firing indiscriminately, of panicked guests seeking refuge wherever they could, and of scattered body parts and pools of blood.

An Australian man who survived the attack at the Taj Mahal hotel and was rescued by soldiers, Paul Guest, told Australian radio there were scenes of unimaginable carnage.

"There was blood all over the floor and bits of bodies," he said.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the militants were from a group based overseas, while the military official leading the rescue, Major General R.K. Hooda, blamed arch-rival Pakistan.

Local reports said a Pakistani militant who was among three gunmen detained had told investigators that 12 attackers were dropped at sea and had reached Mumbai by speedboat.

At least five gunmen had been shot dead, police said. Fourteen security personnel were also killed, including the head of Mumbai's anti-terror squad.

Home ministry sources said two Pakistani ships had been detained off the Indian coast, but the government in Islamabad denied any involvement in the coordinated attacks, which were claimed by a previously unknown group.

The storming of the Mumbai office-residential complex containing a Jewish centre came shortly after dawn Friday, nearly 36 hours after the attacks began.

Elsewhere in the city, officials said they had almost cleared the Taj Mahal hotel, although one wounded gunman was still believed to be in the building. It was not clear how many of the hotel's 565 rooms had been cleared.

At the Oberoi/Trident hotel, 30 people, many of them foreigners, emerged early Friday, with one man cradling a young baby in his arms.

"Mopping up" operations were under way, police said, but at least one gunman with two possible hostages was holding off security forces in the hotel, a senior army officer said.

"I think we should be able to mop up the operation very quickly," National Security Guards director general J.K. Dutt said.

Scores of guests had been trapped in their rooms, too terrified to move. Some gave hair-raising accounts of the dramatic scenes inside.

"We've been waiting for hours and hours for the army to come and say we can go downstairs," one Western woman told AFP by mobile phone late Thursday from inside the Oberoi/Trident.

"We have to keep silent. They could be looking for hostages," she said.

A South African security guard, Faisul Nagel, said his team had evacuated about 120 guests from the Taj Mahal after using tables and refrigerators to barricade themselves into the kitchen and a conference room.

"We armed ourselves with kitchen knives and meat cleavers," he said.

A British-Cypriot tycoon who was killed had earlier given an interview to the BBC describing the scene inside the Taj Mahal, where he estimated 1,000 people were packed into one function room.

"We hid ourselves under the table and then they switched all the lights off. But the machinegun kept going, and they took us into the kitchen, and from there into a basement, to come up into a salon," Andreas Liveras said.

"Every time you hear something, everybody jumps. Everybody is just living on their nerves."

Indian media reports said up to nine foreign nationals were among the dead. A Japanese businessman, two Australians, a Briton, a German and an Italian have been confirmed killed.

The Israeli embassy said around 10-20 Israeli nationals were among those held hostage or trapped.

Guests who escaped recounted how the gunmen had methodically tried to round up US and British citizens.

"They said they wanted anyone with British and American passports," said one Briton, Rakesh Patel.

In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Singh said the attacks were "well-planned and well-orchestrated" and warned neighbours that provided a haven to anti-India militants would have "a cost" to pay.

The aim had been to spread panic by choosing high-profile targets and "indiscriminately killing foreigners," Singh said.

A group calling itself the Deccan Mujahedeen claimed responsibility, with one gunman telling an Indian TV channel that the outfit was of Indian origin and motivated by the treatment of Indian Muslims.

But the PTI news agency said Indian officials were pointing the finger at the Pakistan-backed Lashkar-e-Taiba -- notorious for a deadly assault on the Indian parliament in 2001 that almost pushed India and Pakistan to war.

Mumbai police chief Hassan Gafoor said more than 130 people had died, but warned that the toll could rise.

Up to 327 people were reported wounded, police said.

The main Bombay Stock Exchange opened 1.4 percent lower, reopening after trading was suspended on Thursday, while some shops, schools and businesses remained closed.

England's cricketers abandoned their ongoing one-day series against India and opted to fly home.