/ 27 November 2008

India sees ‘external link’ as troops battle militants

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Thursday the attacks in Mumbai that killed more than 100 people were well planned and probably had ”external linkages”.

Singh was speaking as witnesses in the Indian financial capital said commandos exchanged fresh fire with suspected Islamist militants inside the Taj Hotel and at the nearby Trident-Oberoi, where scores of people were trapped and some taken hostage.

Commandos had also gathered outside a Jewish centre where a rabbi is thought to have beeen taken hostage, but later apparently decided to hold off from an assault.

”The well-planned and well-orchestrated attacks, probably with external linkages, were intended to create a sense of terror by choosing high-profile targets,” Singh said in an address to the nation.

He said that New Delhi would ”take up strongly” the use of neighbours’ territory to launch attacks on India.

Indian governments have in the past blamed neighbouring Pakistan or sometimes Bangladesh for supporting or harbouring militant groups for these attacks.

”It is evident that the group that carried these attacks, based outside the country, had come with single-minded determination to create havoc in the commercial capital of the country,” Singh said.

Commandos earlier freed hostages from the Taj but battled on with the Islamist militants who had launched their audacious attack after arrived by boats in Mumbai on Wednesday.

The gunmen had fanned out in the heart of the city, firing indiscriminately, and attacking luxury hotels, a landmark cafe, hospitals and a railway station.

About 17 hours after the late-evening assault, soldiers and militants were still exchanging intermittent fire and more than 100 people were trapped inside rooms of the Taj Mahal hotel, a 105-year-old city landmark.

”People who were held up there, they have all been rescued,” Maharashtra state police chief AN Roy told NDTV news. ”But there are guests in the rooms, we don’t know how many.”

Roy said some people were still apparently being held hostage at the nearby Trident/Oberoi Hotel. ”That is why the operation is being conducted more sensitively to ensure there are no casualties of innocent people.”

Police said at least six foreigners were killed and another 287 people were wounded in the attacks, which were claimed by the little-known Deccan Mujahideen group.

”Release all the mujahideens, and Muslims living in India should not be troubled,” said a militant inside the Oberoi, speaking to Indian television by telephone.

The man, who identified himself only as Sahadullah, said he was one of seven attackers inside the hotel, and wanted Islamist militants to be freed from Indian jails.

Later, an explosion was heard at the hotel, a Reuters witness said.

At least two guests, trapped in their rooms in the Taj, also phoned TV stations. One said the firedoors were locked, and another said he had seen two dead bodies by the swimming pool.

”Two of my colleagues are still in there and the last we heard from them was three hours ago and then the phone battery died,” said a German national who escaped the Taj.

There were an unspecified number of South Africans staying at the Taj, vice-consul of the SA consulate in Mumbai, Rehaan Ebrahim, told the Mail and Guardian Online on Thursday afternoon.

Ebrahim said he had not heard of any SA casualties, though an unspecified number were still unaccounted for.

”At the moment we are compiling a list of all South Africans in Mumbai. We’re appealing to their families in South Africa to make contact with them and urge them to get in touch with the consulate.

The attacks were bound to spook investors in one of Asia’s largest and fastest-growing economies.

Mumbai has seen several major bomb attacks in the past, but never anything so obviously targeted at foreigners.

Authorities closed stock, bond and foreign exchange markets, and the central bank said it would continue auctions to keep cash flowing through interbank lending markets, which seized up after the global financial crisis.

The militants struck at the heart of Mumbai’s financial and tourist centre on Wednesday, with one of the first targets the Café Leopold, a famous hangout popular with foreign tourists.

They fired automatic weapons indiscriminately and threw grenades before settling in for a long siege at the Taj and the Trident/Oberoi.

”There could be 100 to 200 people inside the [Trident/Oberoi] hotel, but we cannot give you the exact figure as many people have locked themselves inside their rooms,” Maharashtra state deputy chief minister RR Patil told reporters.

”There could be 10 to 12 terrorists inside the hotel,” he said. ”There are no negotiations with the terrorists.”

The attackers appeared to target British and Americans as they sought hostages. Israelis were also among the hostages, a television channel reported, while police said an Israeli rabbi was also being held by gunmen in a Mumbai apartment.

Witnesses said the attackers were young South Asian men in their early 20s, most likely Indians, speaking Hindi or Urdu.

Television footage showed gunmen in a pick-up truck spraying people with rifle fire as the vehicle drove down a Mumbai street.

Hotel staff evacuated wounded on luggage trolleys, with passers-by covered in blood after they rushed to help. Some clambered down ladders to safety.

Blow for ruling party, investment
The attacks could be another blow for the Congress party-led government ahead of a general election due by early 2009, with the party already under fire for failing to prevent a string of bomb attacks on Indian cities.

Opposition leader LK Advani cancelled plans to campaign for ongoing state elections and prepared to visit the city, the Press Trust of India reported.

Strategic expert Uday Bhaskar said the attacks could inflame tensions between Hindus and Muslims.

”The fact that they were trying to segregate British and American passport holders definitely suggests Islamist fervour,” Bhaskar said.

Police said they had shot dead four gunmen and arrested nine suspects. They said 12 policemen were killed, including Hemant Karkare, the chief of the police anti-terrorist squad in Mumbai.

Schools were closed and a curfew was imposed around the Gateway of India, a colonial-era monument. But train services were running as normal taking people to work in the stunned city.

Rakesh Patel, a British witness who was staying at the Taj Mahal hotel on business, said the attackers were looking for British and US passport holders.

”They came from the restaurant and took us up the stairs. They had bombs. Young boys, maybe 20-years-old, 25-years-old. They had two guns,” he told the NDTV channel, smoke stains covering his face.

An Australian, an Italian and a Japanese national were among those killed in the attacks, their governments said.

In Washington, the White House and president-elect Barack Obama condemned the attacks, as did France, current president of the European Union, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Finger of blame
The Council of Muslim Theologians in South Africa said on Thursday it condemned the attacks.

‘As it stands, the authors of this dastardly act have not been positively identified but already the finger of suspicion is pointing at ‘Islamists’,” said the council in a statement.

‘Experience has shown that events of this nature have frequently been followed up by a wholesale crackdown on communities that are assumed to be associated with suspects. It should not be the case that the misdeed of a few should result in general victimisation and entrenchment of stereotypes.”

‘It is clear to us, however, that as long as the world retains pockets of unresolved conflicts, groups will always find opportunities of rationalising their acts against innocent civilians as in this case,” said the statement.