Indian commandos were on Thursday battling Islamist gunmen who launched coordinated attacks against luxury hotels and other targets in Mumbai, taking foreign hostages and killing over 100 people.
India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh said the attackers had come from ” outside the country ,” and also warned “neighbours” who provide a haven to anti-India militants — seen as veiled reference to arch-rival Pakistan.
A top policeman said troops were fighting their way through the financial and entertainment capital’s famous Taj Mahal hotel but told AFP “we are in the final stages of operations.”
“We are confident that we’ll be able to counter the terrorists,” state police chief A.N. Roy said, as sporadic gunfire and explosions continued to echo in Mumbai on Thursday evening.
Some 200 people were still believed trapped in another five-star hotel, the Oberoi/Trident, the hotel group’s vice-chairman said, while a Jewish rabbi was being held at an office-residential complex which also houses a Jewish centre.
Gunmen from the little-known Deccan Mujahedeen group, who claimed responsibility for the attacks, exchanged fire with commandos throughout Wednesday night and Tursday, AFP photographers and reporters on scene said.
Eight other locations, including Mumbai’s main train station, a hospital and a popular restaurant, were sprayed with gunfire and grenades late Wednesday after the gunmen reportedly landed in the city by speedboat.
The Indian navy said it was following up on suspicions that the gunman had been dropped off by a larger boat or ship.
One of the gunmen holed up in the Oberoi/Trident told the India TV channel by phone that they wanted an end to the persecution of Indian Muslims and the release of all fellow Islamic militants detained in India.
“Muslims in India should not be persecuted. We love this as our country but when our mothers and sisters were being killed, where was everybody?” he said from inside.
State officials said 101 people were killed in the assaults, involving small groups of gunmen armed with AK-47s and grenades. The attacks began around 10:30 pm (1700 GMT) Wednesday.
Up to 287 other people were also reported wounded.
Nine foreign nationals were among the dead — including a Japanese businessman, an Australian and an Italian — while Americans, Israelis and Canadians were said to be among those held.
The main Bombay Stock Exchange, itself hit by a terror attack in 1993, was closed until further notice, as were shops, schools and businesses.
In the wake of the attacks, England’s cricketers also abandoned their tour of India and will return home.
In a televised address to the nation, Prime Minister Singh appealed for calm.
“The well-planned and well-orchestrated attacks, probably with external linkages, were intended to create a sense of panic, by choosing high profile targets and indiscriminately killing foreigners,” Singh said.
“It is evident that 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.
“We will take up strongly with our neighbours 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,” he added.
India has in the past frequently accused arch-rival Pakistan of backing Islamic militants active in India, and has recently pointed at neighbouring Bangladesh as a possible source of cross-border militancy.
The prime minister, however, did not identify any country by name.
Witnesses to the carnage said the gunmen had been hunting for British and US nationals.
“They were very young, like boys really, wearing jeans and T-shirts,” said one British guest at the Taj, Rakesh Patel, who was among a dozen people herded together by two heavily-armed men and taken to the hotel’s upper floors.
“They said they wanted anyone with British and American passports and then they took us up the stairs. I think they wanted to take us to the roof,” he said, adding that he and another hostage managed to escape on the 18th floor.
The United States and Britain led global condemnation, with Washington describing the attacks as “horrific”, and US president-elect Barack Obama pledging to work with India to “root out and destroy terrorist networks”.
India has witnessed a wave of coordinated attacks in recent months.
A little-known Islamic group, the Islamic Security Force-Indian Mujahedeen, claimed responsibility for serial blasts last month in India’s northeast state of Assam that claimed nearly 80 lives.
Six weeks earlier, the capital New Delhi had been hit by a series of bombs in crowded markets that left more than 20 dead. Those blasts were claimed by a group calling itself the Indian Mujahedeen.