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India hunts for survivors and culprits

Rotella and Magnier are Times staff writers.

Indian commandos rooted through two smoldering luxury hotels in Mumbai this morning, searching for survivors, the dead and the last of the gunmen whose choreographed rampage of terror through this cosmopolitan city spawned a mystery about their identities and motive.

The brazen attacks that also targeted transportation centers, a hospital and a Jewish community center killed at least 125 people and wounded 325 others. Sporadic gunfire and occasional explosions continued to be heard in parts of Mumbai early today, and an unknown number of people remained missing.

Eight foreigners were among the dead, and the U.S. State Department said three Americans had been wounded. But most of those killed and injured were Indian.

By midmorning, officials estimated that 10 militants remained at large -- one in the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel, four in the Oberoi hotel, and five others holed up in Nariman House, a center used by the ultra-Orthodox Jewish group Chabad Lubavitch.

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A number of hotel guests, mostly foreigners, had remained trapped inside a 21-floor wing of the Oberoi. But around noon, Associated Press said about 20 airline employees, most of them Westerners, left the building.

At the Taj Mahal hotel, there were two explosions and gunfire.

Ten hostages believed to be Israeli citizens were held at Nariman House, where Indian security forces launched a counterattack as the city awoke. Black-clad commandos descended from helicopters, and sharpshooters opened fire from surrounding buildings. The outcome of the assault was not immediately clear.

“We watched 24 commandos surround the building,” said Bharat Phulsunge, a 28-year-old resident who witnessed the confrontation. “We can hear gunfire and explosions from inside. It’s still very tense.”

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Even as troops moved floor to floor through the besieged hotels liberating trapped guests, the Indian government was blaming foreign elements for the mayhem. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went on national television Thursday, asserting that the organizers of the attacks were “based outside the country.”

In what was seen as a thinly veiled indictment of Pakistan, he warned India’s neighbors that “the use of their territory for launching attacks on us will not be tolerated.” Other government officials were quoted in Indian media alleging that the squads of gunmen had charged ashore from rubber boats that fanned out from an unidentified mother ship.

In response, Pakistan’s defense minister condemned the Mumbai attacks and warned India to refrain from accusing its longtime rival of involvement. And some security experts warned that India has plenty of home-grown extremists who could be behind the violence.

‘New front’ in terror

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Whatever their origin, it was clear the squads of attackers were well prepared. The militants struck after months of reconnaissance during which they set up “control rooms” in the targeted hotels, according to Indian officials and an owner of one of the hotels.

“It’s the opening of a new front, a strike in a place that causes surprise,” said Louis Caprioli, a former French counter-terrorism chief. “And it is unique because it’s a military operation that leaves the security forces confused and disorganized.

“For the first time in a long time, you see the use of combatants who take hostages, like the Palestinians in the 1970s,” he said. “They were ready to die, but they were not suicide attackers.”

Past attacks on Indian targets here and abroad have been the work of an evolving, interconnected array of murky Pakistani extremist groups tied to Al Qaeda and, sometimes, current or former Pakistani security officials. They include Lashkar-e-Taiba, which took part in a bloody siege of the Indian Parliament in 2001 and seems a prime suspect in this case, according to officials and experts.

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“This is a group affiliated with Al Qaeda,” said Sajjan Gohel of the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation. “There are eerie similarities to the Parliament attacks.”

But Lashkar-e-Taiba has reportedly denied involvement. And anti-terrorism officials warned against speculation because the evidence is limited. India has a history of violence by Hindus and criminal mafias as well as Muslim extremists.

Most of Mumbai remained in shock Thursday. Once known as Bombay, the city is home to India’s commodities and stock exchanges, which remained closed Thursday amid fears about the effect of the attacks on foreign investment.

In many neighborhoods, 80% of the businesses remained closed as police warned residents to stay home, where many followed the unfolding drama on television.

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Simone Ahuja, an Asia Society associate fellow and founder of a video production house in Mumbai, said the choice of targets favored by foreigners was clearly a blow aimed at dislodging closer U.S.-India ties. And she said the damage done to the Taj Mahal hotel, a waterfront landmark that suffered bomb damage and whose giant towers were licked by flames, may leave emotional scars on the city.

“People are in tears watching their city fall,” said Ahuja, who shares her time between Mumbai and Minneapolis. “This is like what happened to the World Trade Center. This will fundamentally change the mental and visual landscape.”

Although occasional explosions and gunfire were heard through the night Thursday, military officials said that most, if not all, of the hostages at the Taj hotel had been freed. Soon after dark, numerous Indian commandos emerged from the hotel with guns pointed down, a signal that the standoff there was over.

About 6 p.m., 10 hostages staggered out of the Oberoi and into waiting ambulances as blasts and gunfire continued to emanate from the hotel.

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A nine-member unit from Zaka, the Israeli medical search-and-rescue team, flew into Mumbai to help extricate Israeli citizens. Team member Mati Goldstein said they believe 20 to 25 Israelis are missing, including those at Nariman House.

Mark Sofer, Israel’s ambassador to India, said, “We have full faith and confidence in the Indian authorities. But when you’re dealing with terrorists, death is not an issue” for them.

Beach landing told

Meanwhile, the Indian media speculated on how the nation’s intelligence network had not been aware of the plot.

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Officials said commandos seized a small arsenal of weapons that included hand grenades, tear-gas pistols, knives and more than 80 magazines of ammunition. Also found were four or five credit cards with the names and pictures of suspected militants, officials said.

One report indicated that the militants may have come ashore after dark Wednesday. One fisherman told authorities he saw three boats land on the beach. Numerous men cast off life jackets and hurried off the beach. When a bystander asked one of the men who they were, he reportedly responded, “We’re military, just shut up,” the witness said.

The tactics resemble what Lebanese American expert Walid Phares calls a “jihadi infantry” model: a well-trained, commando-style contingent using automatic weapons and grenades to take hostages and execute attacks across a city.

“The M.O. is different than previous mass-casualty attacks,” a senior European anti-terrorism official said. “It’s too early to tell [who’s behind this]. We are not drawing any definitive conclusions.”

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rotella@latimes.com

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Times staff writer John M. Glionna in Beijing and special correspondents Subhash Sharma in Mumbai and Hannah Gardner in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Major targets

A look at some of the main places targeted by gunmen in Mumbai, India’s business and entertainment capital.

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Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel, an elaborate building with onyx columns and high alabaster ceilings opened in 1903, is one of Mumbai’s best-known destinations. The hotel looks out over Mumbai’s waterfront and is owned by the Tata Group, one of India’s leading business houses.

The upscale Oberoi hotel is popular with business travelers. It’s at Nariman Point, the city’s main business district, and is less than a mile from the Bombay Stock Exchange and the state legislative assembly.

The Leopold Cafe, open since 1871, is a Mumbai institution popular with tourists trading India stories over beer. The noisy and smoky cafe is also popular with the city’s artsy crowd of writers, poets and painters.

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, earlier known as Victoria Terminus Station, is one of the busiest railway stations in the country, handling thousands of passengers each day. It was built over 10 years starting in 1878. With its stunning stone dome, turrets and pointed arches, it is a lavish blend of Victorian Gothic Revival architecture and traditional Indian themes. UNESCO listed it as a world heritage site in 2004.

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Nariman House, a five-story residential building in south Mumbai, contains the city headquarters of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish outreach group Chabad Lubavitch. Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, the group’s main emissary, and his family live in the building with other families. The house is an educational center, a synagogue and offers drug counseling. It attracts hundreds of Israeli and Jewish visitors.

Metro Adlabs, earlier known as Metro Cinema, was built by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and opened in 1938. Initially the cinema showed only MGM films. In the 1970s an Indian business took over the cinema and it became a popular venue for Bollywood film premieres. In 2006 it was reinvented as a six-screen multiplex.

The Cama hospital in south Mumbai was built in the late 1880s by a wealthy businessman belonging to India’s tiny Parsi community to cater to women and the poor.

Source: Associated Press

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