29 Nov 2008

Commandos still trading fire with terrorists

5:30 am on 29 November 2008

Indian commandos have continued to trade fire with terrorists still thought to be holding a handful of foreign hostages at two hotels in Mumbai, about 36 after attacks began the country's financial capital.

Government and army officials said operations would be wrapped up within hours, as guests at one of the hotels, the Trident-Oberoi, trickled out and were escorted into waiting buses and cars after a 36-hour siege.

Police said 93 guests had been evacuated so far from that building.

"They are evacuating everyone," said one Indian woman leaving the hotel with her husband. "Everyone is being taken care of."

Army Commander Lieutenant-General N Thamburaj said on Friday evening that almost all guests and staff had been evacuated from the Taj Mahal hotel and the operation would be wrapped up in a few hours.

At least one militant was still thought to be holding two hostages in the Taj Mahal. "He is moving (between) two floors, there is a dance floor area where apparently he has cut off all the lights," he said.

"This morning while carrying out the operation we heard the sound of a lady and a gentleman, so it is possible that this terrorist has got two or more hostages with him."

About 130 people are reported to have been killed and up to 327 wounded since terrorist attacks began in a dozen places late on Wednesday night.

An estimated 25 men armed with assault rifles and grenades had fanned out across Mumbai. Of these, at least seven were killed and nine taken into custody, police say.

Twelve policemen were killed, including the chief of Mumbai's anti-terrorist squad. At least eight foreigners, including an Australian, a Briton, a Canadian, an Italian and a Japanese national, were killed.

Commandos in action

Commandos were also dropped by helicopter on to the roof of a Jewish centre where the attackers are holding at least 10 people.

Security forces fired into the building, apparently to provide cover, as commandos rappeled down a rope from the helicopter.

However, gunfire was still being heard at the centre hours later. Officials said the gunmen are thought to be holding a rabbi and three other people hostage.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the attackers came from "outside the country".

Mr Singh said the attacks were the work of militant groups based in the territory of India's neighbours, usually an allusion to Pakistan, raising prospects of renewed tension between the nuclear-armed rivals.

He warned of a "cost" if these countries did not take action to stop their territory being used to launch such attacks.

Other sites attacked by the terrorists included the main railway station, a hospital and a restaurant popular with foreign tourists. Most of the casualties reportedly occurred at the railway station.

Offers of assistance

An unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen earlier claimed responsibility.

But the Press Trust of India said Indian officials suspect Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-backed group best known for an assault on the Indian parliament in 2001.

The United States has offered to send FBI agents to India to help investigate the attacks, while Britain is sending police and security officials.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown says the world needs to act together against terrorism.

Previous attacks

A series of attacks in Mumbai on 11 July 2006 killed almost 190 people and wounded more than 700. Bombs were detonated on commuter trains during rush hour.

There were two previous bomb attacks in Mumbai in 2003. A bomb on a commuter train killed 11 people on 13 March, and two car bombs killed about 60 people on 25 August that year.

A series of blasts in markets in the capital Delhi on 13 September this year left more than 20 dead.

Contact made with New Zealanders

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade says it still has to locate 35 New Zealanders thought to be in Mumbai, though it has contacted 144 others who are safe after the attacks.

Two consular staff from the New Zealand high commission in Delhi are in Mumbai liaising with police.

The ministry has updated its travel advisory to Mumbai to high risk.

The ministry says New Zealanders planning to travel to India may wish to defer their travel until the immediate crisis has passed.