MUMBAI, India (AP) – Commandos ended a siege of the luxury Oberoi hotel on Friday 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 Friday afternoon, officials said commandos had killed two gunmen inside the nearby Oberoi hotel and ended the attack there.
“The hotel is under our control,” J.K. 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 Oberoi earlier Friday. 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, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene. By Friday 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. Their fate was not clear. Sofer denied reports that Israeli commandos were taking part in the operation.
More than 143 people were killed and 288 injured when suspected Islamic militants attacked 10 sites in Mumbai starting Wednesday evening.
Security officials said their operations were almost over. “It’s just a matter of a few hours that we’ll be able to wrap up things,” Lt. Gen. N. Thamburaj told reporters Friday morning.
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 as security officials pulled him away.
The well-coordinated strikes by small bands of gunmen starting Wednesday night left the city shell-shocked.
Late Thursday, after about 400 people had been brought out of the Taj hotel, officials said it had been cleared of gunmen. But Friday 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 of electricity on the floor where he was hiding. Shortly after that announcement, another round of explosions and gunfire were heard coming from the hotel.
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.
On Friday, India’s foreign minister ratcheted up the accusations over the attacks.
“According to preliminary information, some elements in Pakistan are responsible for Mumbai terror attacks,” Pranab Mukherjee told reporters in the western 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, and not Pakistan itself.
Islamabad has long denied those accusations. Earlier Friday, Pakistan’s 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 U.S. investigative team was heading to Mumbai, a State Department official said Thursday evening, speaking on condition of anonymity because the U.S. and Indian governments were still working out final details.
India has been shaken repeatedly by terror attacks blamed on Muslim militants in recent years, but most were bombings striking crowded places: markets, street corners, parks.
Mumbai, one of the most populated cities in the world with some 18 million people, was hit by a series of bombings in July 2006 that killed 187 people. These attacks were more sophisticated, and more brazen. They began at about 9:20 p.m. with shooters spraying gunfire across the Chhatrapati Shivaji railroad station, one of the world’s busiest terminals. For the next two hours, there was an attack roughly every 15 minutes, the Jewish center, a tourist restaurant, one hotel, then another, and two attacks on hospitals. There were 10 targets in all.
Indian media showed pictures of rubber dinghies found by the city’s shoreline, apparently used by the gunmen to reach the area. Both the luxury hotels targeted overlook the Arabian Sea.
Analysts around the world were debating whether the gunmen could have been tied to, or inspired by, al-Qaeda. A previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen claimed responsibility in e-mails to several media outlets. The Deccan is a region in southern India that was traditionally ruled by Muslim kings.
Survivors of the hotel attacks said the gunmen had specifically targeted Britons and Americans, though most of the dead seemed to be Indians and whoever else was caught in the random gunfire.
One of the gunmen “stopped once and asked, ‘Where are you from? Any British or American? Show your ID,” Alex Chamberlain, a British citizen dining at the Oberoi, told reporters. Among the dead were two Australians and a Japanese, said the state home ministry. An Italian, a Briton and a German were also killed, according to their foreign ministries. The United States, Pakistan and other countries condemned the attacks.
Relations between Hindus, who make up more than 80 percent of India’s 1 billion population, and Muslims, who make up about 14 percent, have sporadically erupted into bouts of sectarian violence since British-ruled India was split into independent India and Pakistan in 1947.