Indian forces fight last gunmen in Mumbai hotel

MUMBAI, India – Indian forces targeted the landmark Taj Mahal hotel with grenades and gunfire Saturday morning as suspected Muslim militants made a last stand, just hours after elite commandos stormed a Jewish outreach center and found six hostages dead.

More than 150 people were killed in the violence that began when gunmen attacked 10 sites across India's financial capital Wednesday night. Fifteen foreigners, including five Americans, were among the dead.

The bodies of New York Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, were found at the Jewish center. Their newly orphaned son, Moshe, who turns 2 on Saturday, was scooped up by an employee Thursday as she fled the building.

Authorities scrambled to identify those responsible for the unprecedented attack, with Indian officials pointing across the border at rival Pakistan, and Pakistani leaders promising to cooperate in the investigation. A team of FBI agents was ordered to fly to India to investigate the attacks.

With the fighting stretching into a third day, commandos killed the last two gunmen inside the luxury Oberoi hotel, where 24 bodies had been found, authorities said. Dozens of people — including a man clutching a baby and about 20 airline crew members — were evacuated from the Oberoi earlier Friday.

"I'm going home. I'm going to see my wife," said Mark Abell, a Briton who had locked himself in his room during the siege.

The Taj Mahal hotel was wracked by hours of intermittent gunfire and explosions that continued into Saturday morning, even though authorities said earlier that they had cleared it of gunmen. Indian forces kept up a counterattack with grenades and trading gunfire with what authorities believed was one or perhaps two militants holed up in the ballroom. TV images showed shattered windows on the building's first floor.

CNN reported the government had cut off their live transmissions from the scene in Mumbai. Authorities have asked not to show live broadcasts of the battle because they believe the gunmen were monitoring the news. Most channels largely obliged.

The capture of the hotel would mark the end of one of the most brazen terror attacks in India's history.

By Friday evening, at least nine gunmen had been killed and one arrested, said R. Patil, a top official in Maharashtra state, where Mumbai is the capital.

In the most dramatic of the counterstrikes Friday morning, masked Indian commandos rappelled from a helicopter to the rooftop of the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish center as snipers laid down cover fire.

For nearly 12 hours, explosions and gunfire erupted from the five-story building as the commandos fought their way downward, while thousands of people gathered behind barricades in the streets to watch.

The assault blew huge holes in the center, and, at one point, Indian forces fired a rocket at the building.

Soon after, elated commandos ran outside with their rifles raised over their heads in a sign of triumph.

But inside the Chabad House was a scene of tragedy.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel's Channel 1 TV that the bodies of three women and three men were found at the center. Some of the victims had been bound, Barak said. "All in all, it was a difficult spectacle," he said.

Local media reports, quoting top military officials, said two gunmen were found dead in the building.

Chabad Lubavitch is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group that runs outreach centers in far-flung areas of the globe. The center in Mumbai served as a synagogue and cultural center for crowds of Israeli tourists and the small local Jewish community, the group said.

Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, a spokesman for the Chabad Lubavitch movement, said the dead Americans at the Jewish center were Holtzberg; Bentzion Chroman, an Israeli with dual U.S. citizenship; and Leibish Teitlebaum, an American from Brooklyn. Holtzberg's wife was an Israeli citizen.

Two other U.S. victims of the attack, from a Virginia community that promotes a form of meditation, were identified Friday as Alan Scherr, 58, and daughter Naomi, 13, of Faber, Va. They were killed in a cafe Wednesday night at the Oberoi, said Bobbie Garvey, a spokeswoman for the Synchronicity Foundation.

The other dead were from Australia, France, Italy, Canada, Japan, Germany, Singapore and a dual British-Cypriot citizen.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said the attackers clearly singled out Jewish and Western targets.

"Our world is under attack. It doesn't matter whether it happens in India or somewhere else," she said. "There are Islamic extremists who don't accept our existence or Western values."

The gunmen were well-prepared, apparently scouting some targets ahead of time and carrying large bags of almonds to keep up their energy during a long siege. One backpack they found contained 400 rounds of ammunition.

The gunmen moved skillfully through the blood-slickened corridors of the Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels, switching off lights to confuse the commandos.

The militants were "very determined," said an unidentified member of India's Marine Commando unit, his face wrapped in a black mask.

Andreina Varagona of Nashville, Tenn., who was shot in the right leg and right arm while dining in the Oberoi hotel, said there was almost no time to escape.

"Within two minutes, they were on us," she said, adding that about a dozen bodies fell to the floor. She dragged herself past the dead and into the restaurant kitchen, where employees were huddled for safety. They picked her up, she said, and carried her out.

Meanwhile, authorities were working to find out who was behind the attacks, claimed by a previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen.

President George W. Bush said the U.S. was working with India and other nations to uncover who was responsible. An FBI team was heading to India to help with the investigation, U.S. officials said.

"My administration has been working with the Indian government and the international community as Indian authorities work to ensure the safety of those still under threat," Bush said in a statement.

President-elect Barack Obama said he was closely monitoring the situation, and declared that the terrorists "will not defeat India's great democracy."

India's foreign minister said the blame appeared to point to Pakistan.

"According to preliminary information, some elements in Pakistan are responsible for Mumbai terror attacks," Pranab Mukherjee told reporters.

Indian home minister Jaiprakash Jaiswal said a captured gunmen had been identified as a Pakistani. Patil, the Maharashtra state official, said: "It is very clear that the terrorists are from Pakistan. We have enough evidence that they are from Pakistan."

Earlier Friday, Pakistani Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar denied involvement by his country: "I will say in very categoric terms that Pakistan is not involved in these gory incidents."

Hoping to head off a crisis between the two nuclear-armed nations, officials in Islamabad agreed to send its spy chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shujaa Pasha, to India to help investigate the attacks.

Christine Fair, a South Asia specialist at the RAND Corp., said the group behind the attack "is probably drawing from, in large numbers, Indian operatives, but it probably enjoys a fairly healthy support of Pakistan."

"The big picture is that there's probably going to be more of this, not less of this, to come," she said.

The gunmen apparently came to Mumbai by boat. Authorities stopped a cargo ship off the west coast of Gujarat that had sailed from Saudi Arabia and handed it over to police for investigation, said navy Capt. Manohar Nambiar.

They also stopped a cargo ship that had arrived from Karachi, Pakistan, but released it when nothing suspicious was found on board.

India has been shaken repeatedly by terror attacks blamed on Muslim militants in recent years, but most were bombings striking crowded places: markets, street corners, parks. Mumbai — one of the most populated cities in the world with some 18 million people — was hit by a series of bombings in July 2006 that killed 187 people.

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Associated Press writers Ramola Talwar Badam, Erika Kinetz, Anita Chang and Jenny Barchfield contributed to this report from Mumbai, and Foster Klug and Lara Jakes Jordan contributed from Washington.


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