Troops retake Jewish centre, hotel in Mumbai

Commandos stormed a Jewish centre and a luxury hotel in Mumbai on Friday to retake them from Islamist militants on the third day of attacks on the Indian financial capital in which at least 130 people have died.

Elite troops slid down ropes from helicopters to breach the Jewish centre, killing two gunmen but failing to save the lives of five hostages, including a New York-based rabbi and his wife.

The commandos also cleared the Trident-Oberoi hotel and freed 143 hostages, including foreign tourists and businessmen who emerged with harrowing stories of the bloodshed inside. Two gunmen were killed.

But at least two or three gunmen were still fighting in the nearby Taj hotel, said Jyoti Krishna Dutt, head of the paramilitary National Security Guards. Officials had earlier believed only one militant was holed up there.

”In view of the firing and the positions they have occupied, I would say there are at least two or three of them,” Dutt said on television as explosions and gunfire erupted regularly at the hotel. They may be holding hostages, other officials said.

The militants’ action has struck at the heart of the freewheeling city, engine room of an economic boom that has made India a favourite emerging market.

It is also home to the Bollywood film industry, the epitome of glamour in a country still blighted with widespread poverty.

The attackers have not precisely spelled out the reasons and aims for the assault. But it has raised new tension between India and old foe Pakistan.

India’s government blamed ”elements” from Pakistan for the assault. Pakistan said the two countries faced a common enemy and said it would send its spy chief to share intelligence.

An Indian state minister said one of the militants arrested was a Pakistani national and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warned of ”a cost” if India’s neighbours did not take action to stop their territory being used to launch attacks.

But Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi called on India not to play politics.

”This is a collective issue. We are facing a common enemy and we should join hands to defeat the enemy,” he told reporters during a visit to the Indian town of Ajmer.

A small army of young men armed with rifles and grenades, some of whom arrived by sea, had fanned out across Mumbai on Wednesday night to attack sites popular with tourists and business executives.

The seizure of the Jewish centre ended just before dusk on Friday when commandos slid down ropes onto the roof from helicopters and blew a hole in the outer wall. One soldier was killed.

The dead hostages included Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, the Brooklyn-based directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Mumbai, the Chabad’s New York headquarters said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, speaking in Jerusalem, said: ”The fact that the assault happened at a Chabad House symbolises more than anything the fact that this assault targeted Jews, Israelis.

”When they attacked the hotels, they looked for those guests who had American, British, Israeli citizenship. In other words, it looks like there was a deliberate intent here.”

‘How can anyone feels safe?’
At the Trident-Oberoi Hotel, commandos killed two militants and freed 143 guests earlier in the day.

Foreigners and Indians, some dragging their suitcases, trickled out of the five-star hotel after their ordeal ended. One hotel staff member held a baby in his arms.

Police said 24 bodies had been found inside the Taj hotel.

But one militant, thought to be wounded, remained inside.

”He is moving in two floors. There is a dance floor area where apparently he has cut off all the lights,” Lieutenant-General N. Thamburaj told reporters.

It was possible that he had two hostages with him, he said.

The head of an elite commando unit, his face masked by a black scarf and sunglasses, said he had seen 50 bodies in the Taj, including 12 to 15 in one room.

Mumbai police chief Hasan Gafoor put the death toll from the attacks at 130. Some 284 people have been wounded.

At least 16 foreigners, including three Germans, three Americans, one Australian, a Briton, one Canadian, two French, an Israeli, an Italian, a Japanese, a Singaporean and a Thai, were among the dead, according to various governments.

Fear was palpable throughout the city of 18 million people.

”When you have a terrorist shooting down people in stations and on roads, how can anyone feel safe any more?” said shopkeeper Pankaj Angre.

The city has been the target of militant attacks before, including bomb blasts in 1993 that killed at least 260 people at the stock exchange and other landmarks. Two years ago, more than 180 people died when Islamist militants bombed commuter trains.

The stock market reopened after closing on Thursday because of the attacks, wobbling, then fighting back to end higher, while the rupee neared a recent record low.

Bond yields touched a three-year low in anticipation of interest rate cuts to shore up confidence battered by the global financial crisis and the attacks, but economic growth for the September quarter beat expectations.

”Guns don’t control the markets. It’s the fundamentals that control the market,” said Amitabh Chakraborty, president of equities at Religare Securities. – Reuters

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