Tuesday 19 February 2019

Indian forces storm Mumbai hotels

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was set alight trapping dozens inside. Photo: Pal Pillai, Getty Images
The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was set alight trapping dozens inside. Photo: Pal Pillai, Getty Images
A policeman helps an injured pensioner through the carnage after shootings by unidentified gunmen at a railway station in Mumbai

Subramaniam Sharma and Chitra Somayaji

Indian commandos battled to free hostages held by gunmen at two luxury hotels in Mumbai, after terrorist shootings and blasts across the city killed 101 people and left 287 injured.

Militants armed with grenades and rifles stormed into the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel and the Oberoi Trident complex at about 10 p.m. local time yesterday, saying they were targeting Americans and Britons, according to witnesses.

“The terrorists are still hiding,” said Mumbai Police Sub- Inspector S.D. Tarwadkar as security forces swept through the hotels. The officer said he didn’t have details of the number of hostages or their nationalities.

Targeting foreign nationals at key tourist hotels and restaurants adds a new dimension to a wave of bombings in India this year that has killed more than 300 people. Multiple attacks have rocked India’s cities with bombs planted in markets, theaters and near mosques.

“Mumbai is the New York of India and this is a clear attack on Westerners,” said Clive Williams, a terrorism specialist at the Australian National University. “The targeting of British and Americans means there is a new modus operandi.”

There may be as many as 12 terrorists at the Oberoi and there is no proposal to negotiate with them, said R.R. Patil, deputy chief minister of the western Maharashtra state, after reports the militants were demanding the release of all Mujahedeen fighters held in India. A loud blast was heard near the Trident Hotel where commandos are battling to free hostages.

‘Sheer Chaos’

“It was sheer chaos,” said Manuela Testolini, a Canadian businesswoman who was dining at the Oberoi when gunmen burst in hunting for foreign nationals. “Every time we heard gunshots they were right behind us,” Testolini, who escaped through the kitchen with guests and hotel workers, told CNN television.

“They told everybody to stop and put their hands up and asked if there were any British or Americans,” businessman Alex Chamberlain told Sky Television. “My friend said to me, ‘don’t be a hero, don’t say you are British.’”

A little known Islamist group called the Deccan Mujahedeen claimed responsibility for the Mumbai attacks, the Press Trust of India reported. Gunmen may have come from Pakistan, the Times Now television channel said, citing an unidentified intelligence official.

Global Condemnation

President-elect Barack Obama led global condemnation of the attacks as his transition team said the U.S. would work with “India and nations around the world to root out and destroy terrorist networks.”

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the “outrageous” attacks in India would be met with a “vigorous response.”

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for the attackers to be “brought to justice swiftly.”

Indian President Pratibha Devisingh Patil, on an official visit to Vietnam, condemned the attacks as the “mindless” act of people “pursuing a path of destruction.”

Six foreigners, 14 policemen, including the head of Mumbai’s anti-terrorism unit, and 81 members of the public were killed, according to police.

The U.S. State Department said it wasn’t aware of any American casualties in the attacks “at this point.” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said an Australian was killed in the attacks. One Japanese citizen was killed and another injured, the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo said.

Seven Britons were hurt in the attacks, British High Commissioner Sir Richard Stagg said in televised comments, adding he had no information on the nationality of the hostages.

Explosions, Gunfire

The attacks, the worst in the city since train blasts in July 2006 killed 187 people and injured more than 800, began with explosions and gunfire ringing out across the city. Armed with AK-47 rifles and grenades, two terrorists entered the passenger hall of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and opened fire, PTI said. Images on television showed blood-spattered luggage strewn across the floor.

Shootings occurred outside Cafe Leopold, in the Colaba district of south Mumbai where the Taj is located, CNN-IBN television reported.

Another siege was in progress at Nariman House, an office building that houses a Jewish center, Agence France-Presse reported. The chairman of the Indian Jewish Federation, Jonathan Solomon, said a rabbi and his family were being held inside by gunmen, the news agency added.

Taj Fire

The Taj was damaged as a fire broke out overnight, forcing emergency workers to evacuate guests by ladders. All 26 South Koreans at the hotel were rescued, according to the Foreign Ministry in Seoul.

The hotel is a landmark in the city and its owners, Indian Hotels Co., said they would “rebuild every inch that has been damaged.”

The hotel overlooks the historic Gateway of India monument, the scene of a car bomb explosion in August 2003 when attacks in Mumbai killed at least 50 people.

Like the Taj, the Oberoi is popular with international visitors to Mumbai. Previous guests have included News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch and Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, according to the hotel’s Web site. The Oberoi Group, founded in 1934, also operates the luxury Trident hotel brand.

Hotel Security

Security was stepped up at other luxury hotels across India. In the capital, New Delhi, the Imperial Hotel posted extra guards and swung its gates half-closed to prevent cars from entering freely. Schools and colleges in Mumbai will be closed today, the PTI news agency reported.

The attacks come as India accelerates efforts to prop up a slumping economy battered by the global financial crisis.

India’s central bank said last month that growth in the $1.2 trillion economy may be as little as 7.5 percent in the year ending next March, compared with 9 percent in the previous 12 months.

The attacks may affect tourism, which climbed 10 percent in the first nine months of the year to 3.87 million visitors, generating $8.8 billion in revenue.

Between January 2004 and March 2007 the death toll from terrorist attacks in India was 3,674, second only to Iraq during the same period, according to the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington.

The government has previously blamed terrorist attacks on organizations linked to foreign powers, without offering evidence or making arrests. Local media often blame the attacks on groups backed by Pakistan or Bangladesh, without identifying the security officials who provided the information.

India’s capital, New Delhi, was rocked by five blasts during an evening rush hour in September, killing as many as 26 people and injuring about 133. Indian Mujahadeen, which claimed responsibility for similar attacks in Ahmedabad and Jaipur, said it was behind the blasts.

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