Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mumbai rocked by deadly attacks

Employees and guests of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel are rescued by fire crews
Employees and guests of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel are rescued by fire crews

Gunmen have carried out a series of co-ordinated attacks across the Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay), killing at least 80 people and injuring 250 more.

At least seven high-profile locations were hit in India's financial capital, including two luxury hotels where hostages are reported to be held.

A fire has destroyed part of the Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai's most famous hotel, which is now ringed by troops.

Police said four suspected terrorists have been killed and nine arrested.

Flames and black smoke billow from the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, Mumbai

As day broke in Mumbai, the situation on the ground was still confused with reports of gunfire and explosions at between seven and 16 locations.

The city's main commuter train station, a hospital, a restaurant and two hotels - locations used by foreigners as well as local businessmen and leaders - are among those places caught up in the violence.

Commandos have now surrounded the two hotels, the Taj Mahal Palace and the Oberoi Trident, where it is believed that the armed men are holding dozens of hostages.

A BBC correspondent outside the Taj Mahal Palace said there had been a series of gun shots between police and the armed men, and that 11 officers were killed in the skirmishes.

Eyewitness reports suggest the attackers singled out British and American passport holders.

If the reports are true, our security correspondent Frank Gardner says it implies an Islamist motive - attacks inspired or co-ordinated by al-Qaeda.

A claim of responsibility has been made by a previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen.

Our correspondent says it could be a hoax or assumed name for another group.

The motive is far from clear - but the attacks come amid elections in several Indian states, including in disputed Kashmir.

In the latest developments:

• Reports say five gunmen have taken hostages in an office block in the financial district of Mumbai

• Fire crews are evacuating people from the upper floors of the Taj Mahal Palace, from where smoke can still be seen billowing although the blaze has been extinguished

• The head of Mumbai's anti-terrorism unit and two other senior officers are among those killed, officials say

• The White House holds a meeting of top intelligence and counter-terrorism officials, and pledges to help the Indian government.

Gunmen opened fire at about 2300 local time (1730 GMT) at the sites in southern Mumbai.

Eyewitness reaction and local TV footage from the scene

"The terrorists have used automatic weapons and in some places grenades have been lobbed," said AN Roy, police commissioner of Maharashtra state.

Local TV images showed blood-splattered streets, and bodies being taken into ambulances.

One eyewitness told the BBC he had seen a gunman opening fire in the Taj Mahal's lobby.

"We all moved through the lobby in the opposite direction and another gunman then appeared towards where we were moving and he started firing immediately in our direction."

One British tourist said she spent six hours barricaded in the Oberoi hotel.

BOMB ATTACKS IN INDIA IN 2008
30 October: Explosions kill at least 64 in north-eastern Assam
30 September: Blasts in western India kill at least seven
27 September: Bomb blasts kills one in Delhi
13 September: Five bomb blasts kill 18 in Delhi
26 July: At least 22 small bombs kill 49 in Ahmedabad
25 July: Seven bombs go off in Bangalore killing two people
13 May: Seven bomb hit markets and crowded streets in Jaipur killing 63

"There were about 20 or 30 people in each room. The doors were locked very quickly, the lights turned off, and everybody just lay very still on the floor," she said.

There has been a wave of bombings in Indian cities in recent months which has left scores of people dead.

Most of the attacks have been blamed on Muslim militants, although police have also arrested suspected Hindu extremists.

Mumbai itself has also been attacked in the past: in July 2006 a series of bomb attacks on busy commuter trains killed almost 190 people and injured more than 700.

Police accused Pakistan's intelligence agency of planning those attacks, which they said were carried out by an Islamist militant group, Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Pakistan rejected the allegation, saying there was no evidence that its intelligence staff were involved.

But the latest shootings come at a time when ties between India and Pakistan have improved.

Just days ago Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari told a summit in Delhi that Pakistan would not be first to carry out a missile strike on India.

The two countries have a joint anti-terror mechanism whereby they are supposed to share information on terrorist attacks.

Aerial map of Mumbai showing sites of shootings



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