MUMBAI, (Reuters) – Commandos ended a three-day rampage by Islamist gunmen in Mumbai on Saturday, gunning down the last of the militants who killed nearly 200 people in a strike on India’s financial heart.
Elite Black Cat commandos killed the remaining four militants after a running gunbattle through a maze of corridors, rooms and halls in Mumbai’s best-known hotel, the Taj Mahal.
There were signs of mounting public anger over the attacks — most of it directed against Pakistan, after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hinted that elements from India’s nuclear-armed South Asian rival may have been involved. “Our soldiers came and Pakistan ran away,” shouted a group of about 50 protesters outside the Taj Mahal, pumping their fists skyward. One waved an Indian flag.
Commandos and rescue personnel were still cleaning up the wreckage near the still-smouldering hotel after the final battle inside.
The four militants were the last of 10 gunmen who attacked Mumbai’s top two luxury hotels, its biggest railway station and several other symbols of India’s financial might with grenades and assault rifles in a frenzy that began on Wednesday night.
Hundreds of people, many of them Westerners, were trapped or taken hostage. Twenty-two of those killed were foreigners.
Evidence mounted the men had come to Mumbai by sea from Karachi. “Investigation carried out so far has revealed the hand of Pakistan-based groups in the Mumbai attack,” Sriprakash Jaiswal, India’s minister of state for home affairs, told Reuters.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, battling Islamic radicals in his own nation, said he would cooperate.
“If any evidence comes of any individual or group in any part of my country, I shall take the swiftest of action in the light of evidence and in front of the world,” he told CNN-IBN TV.
Many guests, trapped in their rooms in the Taj Mahal while the battle raged around them, emerged to harrowing scenes after the killing of the militants in relentless gunfire.
“The blood, everywhere the blood,” an American woman called Patricia told the NDTV news channel, choking back tears.
The gunmen had set parts of the 105-year-old hotel ablaze as they evaded scores of India’s best-trained commandos. They left bodies in their wake, some with grenades stuffed into their mouths or concealed underneath.
Black streaks of soot stained the grey bricks, white balconies and red-tiled roofs of the hotel’s facade. The ground floor was gutted, the wood-panelled walls blackened and cracked by explosions and fire.
Wine glasses and soup bowls were scattered on the floor, a charred gilt chandelier broken in pieces on a carpet and shattered glass strewn throughout the Taj’s boutique shops. “At one time it was so magnificent. We were admiring it, sitting in the swing near the pool,” Patricia said. “At one moment it was just serene and sensational, and the next, it was all gone.”
Nine of the gunmen were killed, a tenth caught alive. He told interrogators they wanted to go down in history for an Indian version of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Times Now TV said, quoting an unidentified defence ministry official. They were also inspired by the bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad in September, it said.
The Taj Mahal was the last battleground after three days of intense fighting in various parts of the city of 18 million.
Several newspapers said some of the militants had checked into the hotel days or weeks before the attacks, while the Times of India said they had rented an apartment in the city a few months ago pretending to be students.
On Friday, an army general said the gunmen appeared to be very familiar with the hotel’s layout and were well-trained. “At times we found them matching us in combat and movement,” one commando told the Hindustan Times. “They were either army regulars or have done a long stint of commando training.”
Late on Saturday, M.L. Kumawat, a senior official in India’s Home Ministry, said the official toll was 183 killed, 20 of them police or soldiers. Earlier, Mumbai disaster authorities said at least 195 people had been killed and 295 wounded.
The death toll rose as bodies were collected from the Taj and nearby Trident-Oberoi hotel, scene of another siege that ended on Friday. “The most difficult thing was not knowing what was going on. It felt like a war zone, like I was in Iraq or Afghanistan and it went on and on for two nights and one full day,” said Geeta Kapur, who was trapped on the 33rd floor of the Trident.
The attacks struck at the heart of Mumbai, the engine room of an economic boom that has made India a favourite emerging market with investors.
It is also home to the “Bollywood” film industry, the epitome of glamour in a country blighted by poverty.
The arrested man has confessed to being a member of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, which has long fought Indian forces in disputed Kashmir and was blamed for an attack on India’s parliament in December 2001, newspapers said.
Authorities said 22 foreigners were among the dead, including three Germans, three Israelis, one American, one Australian, a Briton, two Canadians, an Italian, a Japanese, a Singaporean, a Mauritian, a Thai and a Chinese national. Five were unidentified, they said. However, the U.S. State Department has said five Americans were killed while two French nationals are also known to have died. India denied reports any of the attackers were British.