Coordinated groups of gunmen shot and blasted their way through tourist sites in the Indian financial center of Mumbai late Wednesday and early today, killing at least 101 people and wounding more than 200 while apparently targeting American and British citizens for use as hostages.
The attackers swept through two luxury hotels favored by foreigners, the Taj Mahal Palace and the Oberoi, firing automatic weapons, throwing grenades and sending panicked guests scrambling for safety. Some guests were trapped inside the hotels for hours, even as a series of explosions set fire to the Taj hotel, a landmark along of Mumbai’s waterfront.
Although Mumbai has been the scene of several terrorist attacks in recent years, experts said Wednesday’s assaults required a previously unseen degree of reconnaissance and planning. The scale and synchronization of the attacks pointed to the likely involvement of experienced commanders, some said, suggesting possible foreign involvement.
Launching their attacks after dark, the terrorists struck almost simultaneously at the city’s domestic airport and a railway station and sprayed gunfire at the Leopold Cafe, a restaurant popular with foreigners. As many as 16 groups hit nine sites on the southern flank of this crowded metropolis of 19 million.
Mumbai is South Asia’s financial hub and an entertainment capital, with many of the glitzy targets symbolizing the new cosmopolitan face of the world’s largest democracy.
Several witnesses said the gunmen demanded to see passports from cornered guests, separating American and British tourists from the others. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said U.S. officials were not aware of any American casualties but were still checking.
In the chaos and confusion, it was difficult to confirm details or determine the nationalities of hostages apparently being held on several floors of the damaged hotels. India’s NDTV 24x7 news channel reported that the gunmen were holding more than a dozen foreigners, including a Belgian and an Indonesian.
Firefighters could be seen helping guests to safety, and some later reports suggested that hostages at the Taj had been freed. Other reports said there were attacks at two hospitals, a police station and the Mumbai office of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish outreach group, Chabad Lubavitch.
A previously unknown group calling itself Deccan Mujahedin said it carried out the attack, though experts warned that the claim might be false. Mumbai and other Indian cities have suffered a spate of terrorist attacks in recent years, most of which the Indian government has blamed on Muslim extremists.
Previous terrorist attacks have mostly involved bombs left in public spaces such as markets and parks, causing indiscriminate casualties.
In sharp contrast, Wednesday’s attacks were a brazen, frontal assault using automatic weapons.
The targets included police headquarters in south Mumbai, where some officers were pinned down by gunfire.
The victims included Mumbai’s anti-terrorism chief, Hemant Karkare, and two of his senior police officers, which complicated the law enforcement response to the attacks. Television video showed Karkare donning a flak jacket and helmet minutes before heading into one of the hotels.
Witnesses said the attackers appeared to fire at random and made no effort to hide their identities, which, experts suggested, signaled a readiness to die. Police released a picture of a man with a serene smile wearing a blue T-shirt and holding an automatic weapon, whom they identified as one of the train station attackers.
Local government officials said as many as four attackers were killed and nine suspects were arrested.
Terrorism experts said the late-evening timing offered several potential advantages for the attackers. Security is generally more lax as businesses prepare to close.
Also, there’s less traffic in the congested city at that time, making it easier to position a large number of attackers at various sites. And it allows the story to hit news cycles in Europe and North America, with global publicity a key objective among terrorists hoping to undermine stability and spread fear.
Near the Vile Parle station of the city’s Western train line, a bomb exploded in a taxi on the highway about 10 p.m. An hour later, parts of the vehicle could be seen scattered up to 100 feet away. Four injured people nearby were taken to a hospital.
Within minutes, police officers were cordoning off all major roads, stopping even emergency vehicles as reports came in that two attackers had hijacked a police van.
Friends and guests told reporters that they received frantic calls from loved ones hiding under beds and tables in darkened hotel rooms.
An Indian travel agent gave a harrowing firsthand account of the attacks in a phone conversation Wednesday night with the director of a London-based security think tank.
The Indian was in the Harbor Bar of the Taj Mahal hotel with European visitors when the shooting started. He described the gunmen as ruthless and determined and said they demanded to know who were British or American, according to M.J. Gohel, director of the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation.
The attackers carried automatic weapons, according to the account described by Gohel, who is of Indian descent and has expertise on South Asian extremist groups.
“My friend managed to get away; the staff shepherded them into a conference room about six hours ago,” Gohel said from London. “The last I heard, they are still locked down there. It is believed the terrorists are still inside, they may have hostages, they may be on the roof of the hotel.”
During intermittent calls to London from his hiding place, the travel agent said the attackers seemed focused on British and American guests and “did not seem to be interested in French and Germans,” Gohel said.
The White House and President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team issued statements condemning the attacks.
The operation comes at a sensitive time for India and the region. Five Indian states are holding elections now and a national vote is expected early next year. The opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has accused Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress Party of being soft on terrorism.
The attacks also come amid improved relations between India and the new Pakistani government led by President Asif Ali Zardari, just after an encouraging turnout of voters in the contested region of Kashmir and when Obama has signaled that the U.S. will shift its focus from the Mideast to Afghanistan and South Asia.
“The enemy of all terrorists is moderation,” said Bruce Hoffman, a professor with Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program in Washington. “They want to put harder-line parties in power. The oxygen they breathe is polarization and enmity.”
Mumbai is no stranger to terrorist attacks. Tension stoked by communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in 1992 and 1993 has never fully abated; 187 people were killed when seven explosions ripped through Mumbai commuter trains in July 2006.
Across India, more than 3,600 people have been killed in terrorist incidents since January 2004, according to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, many involving sectarian disputes.
As a result, India has highly professional anti-terrorism organizations. But the loss of Karkare, Mumbai’s chief anti-terrorism officer, and his top aides, including leading hostage specialist Vijay Salaskar, greatly weakens the city’s anti-terrorist squad.
“It buys the militants more time, increases the panic and further embarrasses the government,” Hoffman said.
“This furthers their aim of trying to undermine popular confidence in the government’s ability to protect its citizens.”
Times Staff Writer Sebastian Rotella in Madrid and special correspondent Hannah Gardner in New Delhi contributed to this report.
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Mumbai at a glance
History: Formerly known as Bombay, the city is built on seven islands that over time became a single landmass of about 170 square miles.
Industry: Mumbai is the commercial and entertainment center of India and a major industrial hub. Bollywood, as India’s movie- making industry is known, is centered there, along with the Reserve Bank of India, the national and Bombay stock exchanges and numerous corporate headquarters. The city’s natural bay and location between East Asia and Africa have long made it a major stopping point for shipping and trade.
Population: Mumbai is home to an estimated 19 million people.
Sources: Times reference material and the Mumbai municipal website