Indian Forces Battle Pockets of Militants

November 28, 2008

28mubaixlarge2xMUMBAI, India — Indian commandos staged a dramatic helicopter raid and battled pockets of militants on Friday as security forces tried to end the bloody assault by terrorists on Mumbai, the financial and entertainment capital of India. The police said the death toll reached 143 with the discovery of 24 bodies in the luxury Oberoi hotel.

Commandos slid down ropes from a hovering Army helicopter Friday morning as they stormed a Jewish center that had been seized. The blue-uniformed troopers landed on the roof and soon made their way inside Nariman House, home to the Orthodox Jewish group Chabad-Lubavitch.

A gun battle was raging inside the building, with several explosions and heavy firing throughout the day , but there was no word on the fate of hostages assumed to be held there.

Indian Army and paramilitary commandos also made their way through two charred luxury hotels, searching for bodies and survivors while continuing to battle gunmen from the teams that struck the city Wednesday night. In addition to the Jewish center and the hotels, the terrorists, armed with grenades and automatic weapons, hit at least four other sites on Mumbai’s southern tip — the main train station, a hospital, a cinema and a historic café.

While there was still no definitive word on the identity or affiliation of the attackers, an Indian official said one of the assailants captured alive was a Pakistani citizen. The assertion by R.R. Patil, the home affairs minister of Maharashtra State where Mumbai is located, could further increase tension between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed states who have fought wars in the past.

Pakistan said on Friday it was prepared to send its intelligence chief, Ahmed Shuja Pasha, to India to share information in the investigation into the attacks.

News agencies cited police reports that 93 foreigners — some of them wearing Air France and Lufthansa uniforms — had been rescued on Friday from one of the hotels, the Oberoi. The reports also quoted the Mumbai police chief, Hassan Ghafoor, as saying 24 bodies had been found and the security forces had completed their operation there.

At the other hotel, the Taj Mahal Hotel and Tower, several trucks carrying members of India’s elite Rapid Action Force arrived at 1:15 p.m. on Friday. The troopers appeared to be starting an assault on the hotel, where an Army official said at least one militant was still holding hostages. At least eight grenade explosions were heard, followed by small arms fire. Lights were seen going on in rooms on the hotel’s fifth floor. Outside the hotel, a sniper took up position in a cherrypicker.

The leader of a commando unit that was involved in a gun battle Friday morning inside the Taj said he seen a dozen dead bodies in one of the rooms.

His team also discovered a gunman’s backpack, which contained dried fruit, 400 rounds of AK-47 ammunition, four grenades, Indian and American money, and seven credit cards from some of the world’s leading banks. They pack also had a national identity card from the island of Mauritius, off Africa’s southeastern coast.

The attackers were “very, very familiar with the layout of the hotel,” said the commander, who disguised his face with a scarf and tinted glasses. He said the militants, who appeared to be under 30 years old, were “determined” and “remorseless.”

Fears were growing in Mumbai that the death toll would rise. Dozens of people, and perhaps many more, remained trapped in the hotels, though it was uncertain if any were being held hostage. More than 300 people were known to have been wounded.

The police said 14 police officers had been killed in the city, along with nine gunmen. Nine suspects were taken into custody, they said.

Earlier in the day, an Army general, N. Thamburaj, was quoted as saying he expected all anti-terrorist operations in Mumbai to be wrapped up by midafternoon.

There remained much mystery around the group behind the attack, which terrorism experts said was unusual in its scale, planning and boldness.

In a televised speech Thursday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed forces “based outside this country” in a thinly veiled accusation that Pakistan was involved. A day later, India’s foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee was quoted by the Press Trust of India as saying that, according to preliminary reports, “some elements in Pakistan are responsible.”

On Friday, Pakistan seemed anxious to defuse the mounting crisis in relations with its neighbor. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said India and Pakistan should join hands to defeat a common enemy, and urged New Delhi not to play politics over the attacks in Mumbai, Reuters reported.

“Do not bring politics into this issue. This is a collective issue. We are facing a common enemy and we should join hands to defeat the enemy,” the foreign minister told reporters in the Indian town of Ajmer during a four-day visit to India.

President Asif Ali Zardari called Mr. Singh, Reuters reported, to say he was “appalled and shocked” by the terrorist attacks. “Non-state actors wanted to force upon the governments their own agenda, but they must not be allowed to succeed,” he said.

The attacks could threaten recent American efforts to reduce the overall enmity between Pakistan and India, which were meant to enable Pakistan to focus more military resources against the rising threat of the Taliban in its lawless tribal areas.

Mr. Singh had issued a warning Thursday that seemed clearly aimed at Pakistan, which India has often accused of allowing terrorist groups to plot anti-Indian attacks.

“The group which carried out these attacks, based outside the country, had come with single-minded determination to create havoc in the commercial capital of the country,” he said. “We will take up strongly with our neighbors that the use of their territory for launching attacks on us will not be tolerated, and that there would be a cost if suitable measures are not taken by them.”

The suspicions raised by the attack seemed a blow to relations between India and Pakistan, which had been recovering from a low earlier this year after India blamed the Pakistani intelligence agency for abetting the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan. India has frequently accused Pakistan-based militant groups of fueling terrorist attacks on Indian soil, though lately it has also acknowledged the presence of homegrown Muslim and Hindu militant organizations.

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