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Friday, November 28, 2008

Official says siege has ended at Mumbai Taj Mahal hotel

MUMBAI, India — State official in India says siege has ended at Mumbai's Taj Mahal hotel and last three attackers have been killed.

Six Canadians are unaccounted for after suspected Muslim militants attacked targets throughout India's financial capital at day earlier, killing at least 119 people.

In addition to releasing the higher death toll, Indian authorities said 288 people have been injured in the brazen attacks on 10 targets in the city.

A U.S.-based group said two of the wounded are from Canada.

Rescue efforts continued throughout the day Thursday amid sporadic gunfire, with some hostages escaping and others rescued by police.

Several bodies were carried out of the five-star Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel.

After dusk Thursday, soldiers ushered several dozen captives out of the Oberoi hotel, another Mumbai landmark that was attacked.

A top Indian general said about 10 to 12 gunmen remain holed up inside two hotels and a Jewish centre. Maj. Gen. R.K. Huda told New Delhi Television that the rest of the gunmen appeared to have been killed or captured.

In Ottawa, senior government officials said six Canadians were among those held at one hotel.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon earlier confirmed a number of Canadians were at the targeted hotels but could not say what their status might be.

Thomas Sechak of the U.S.-based Synchronicity Foundation, said four Canadians were part of a delegation on a spiritual trip to India. He said two of them - Michael Rudder, of Montreal, and Helen Connolly, of Toronto - were injured Wednesday night during the attack at one hotel.

"Early on in the evening, when the restaurant was seized first at the Oberoi hotel, Michael got three bullet wounds," Sechak told The Canadian Press by telephone from Faber, Va.

"He was in critical care and is recovering."

Sechak said Connolly was only "grazed by a bullet and is fine."

In Mumbai, the state's Deputy Home Secretary Bitin Srimali said foreigners being held captive included Canadians, Americans, British, Italians, Swedes, Yemenis, New Zealanders, Spaniards, Turks, a Singaporean and Israelis.

In the highly co-ordinated attacks, bands of gunmen invaded two five-star hotels, a popular restaurant, a crowded train station, a Jewish centre and at least five other sites. The assailants were armed with assault rifles, hand grenades and explosives.

Flames burst from Taj Mahal Palace's top floors and dome shortly after the attack began Wednesday night, and erupted again after commandos raided the building Thursday.

One of the freed hostages who did not give his name told reporters he had seen many bodies inside the hotel. He refused to give more details, saying he had promised police not to discuss the rescue while it was ongoing.

The Maharashtra state home ministry said 45 captives had been freed from the Oberoi and 35 were still trapped inside.

Police said they were going slowly to protect the captives.

"The safety of the people trapped is very important," said A. N. Roy, a senior police officer. "It will take time but it will be completed successfully."

Among the dead were at least one Australian, a Japanese and a British national, said Pradeep Indulkar, a senior government official of Maharashtra state, whose capital is Mumbai. A German and an Italian were also killed, according to the foreign ministries in the two countries.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed "external forces."

"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," he said in address to the nation.

A previously unknown Islamic militant group claimed responsibility for the carnage, the latest in a series of countrywide terror attacks over the past three years that have dented India's image as an industrious nation galloping toward prosperity.

The most high-profile target was the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel, a landmark in Mumbai since 1903, and a favourite watering hole of the city's elite.

The attackers, dressed in black shirts and jeans, stormed into the hotel at about 9:45 p.m. and opened fire indiscriminately.

The shooting was followed by a series of explosions that set fire to parts of the century-old edifice on Mumbai's waterfront. Screams were heard and black smoke and flames billowed, continuing to burn until dawn.

The gunmen also seized the Mumbai headquarters of the ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach group Chabad Lubavitch. Around 10:30 a.m., a woman, a child and an Indian cook were seen being led out of the building by police, said one witness.

Dozens of Indian commandos surrounded the five-storey building, where heavy curtains hung behind windows broken by gunfire. Outside the centre, thousands of people stood in the narrow alleyways watching the standoff.

The attackers appeared to have been targeting Britons and Americans.

Alex Chamberlain, a British citizen who was dining at the Oberoi, told Sky News television that a gunman ushered 30 to 40 people from the restaurant into a stairway and, speaking in Hindi or Urdu, ordered everyone to put up their hands.

"They were talking about British and Americans specifically. There was an Italian guy, who, you know, they said: 'Where are you from?" and he said he's from Italy and they said 'fine' and they left him alone. And I thought: 'Fine, they're going to shoot me if they ask me anything - and thank God they didn't," he said.

Chamberlain said he managed to slip away as the patrons were forced to walk up stairs, but he thought much of the group was being held hostage.

The United States and Canada were among the countries that condemned the attacks.

In Washington, White House press secretary Dana Perino said the U.S. "condemns this terrorist attack and we will continue to stand with the people of India in this time of tragedy."

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper condemned the attacks calling them "despicable and cowardly."

"These attacks targeted people from India and around the world. They were attacks on values we hold dear, and we share your loss," Harper said in a statement Thursday.

Ottawa issued a travel warning Thursday advising travellers to avoid non-essential travel to Mumbai until the situation stabilizes. "Visitors in the city should monitor local news reports, immediately return to their accommodation and remain indoors," the advisory said.

The motive for the onslaught was not immediately clear, but Mumbai has frequently been targeted in terrorist attacks blamed on Islamic extremists, including a series of bombings in July 2006 that killed 187 people.

Later Thursday the Indian navy said its forces were boarding a cargo vessel suspected of ties to the attacks.

Navy spokesman Capt. Manohar Nambiar said Thursday that the ship, the MV Alpha, had recently come to Mumbai from Karachi, Pakistan.

The navy has "located the ship and now we are in the process of boarding it and searching it," he said. Earlier, Indian media showed pictures of black and yellow rubber dinghies found by the shore, apparently used by the gunmen to reach the area.

India has been wracked by bomb attacks the past three years, which police blame on Muslim militants intent on destabilizing this largely Hindu country. Nearly 700 people have died.

Since May a militant group calling itself the Indian Mujahideen has taken credit for a string of blasts that killed more than 130 people. The most recent was in September, when explosions struck a park and crowded shopping areas in the capital, New Delhi, killing 21 people and wounding about 100.

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