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'Hostages freed' at Mumbai hotel

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 Indian army snipers climb scaffolding opposite the Taj Mahal Palace hotel
Indian army snipers climb scaffolding opposite the Taj Mahal Palace hotel

A number of hostages have been freed from one of Mumbai's top hotels - one of several sites in the city targeted by armed men - eyewitnesses said. But the situation at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel remains confused, with explosions and gunfire heard coming from inside the hotel.

Police chief AN Roy says gunmen are still believed to be holding hostages at the Oberoi Trident hotel. The series of attacks began late Wednesday and have killed 101 people.

More than 300 people were injured after the attackers, using grenades and automatic weapons, targeted at least seven sites in the main tourist and business district. Around 40 people were believed to be held hostage at the two hotels, and hundreds trapped in their rooms, as troops began surrounding the buildings soon after they were taken over by the armed men. Eyewitness reports from the hotels suggested the attackers were singling out British and American passport holders.
If the reports are true, our security correspondent Frank Gardner says it implies an Islamist motive - attacks inspired or co-ordinated by al-Qaeda. A claim of responsibility has been made by a previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen. Our correspondent says it could be a hoax or assumed name for another group.

Ambulances arrive

Maharashtra state police chief AN Roy told local television that the siege at the Taj Mahal - one of Mumbai's most recognisable hotels - had ended. "People who were held up there, they have all been rescued. But there are guests in the rooms, we don't know how many."  Witnesses said civilians could be seen running from the hotel, some with suitcases. Ambulances were also reported to be arriving.

But the BBC's Mark Dummett, outside the Taj Mahal, says the situation has since become very confused, with the sounds of explosions and gunfire being heard from within the hotel, suggesting the siege is not yet over.

Earlier in the day, Indian commandos had been seen entering the hotels but there was little detail on the operation.

Mr Roy said some people were still apparently being held hostage at the Oberoi. "That is why the operation is being conducted more sensitively to ensure there are no casualties of innocent people," he said. Meanwhile, explosions have been heard outside a Jewish centre in the city, where an Israeli rabbi is believed to be one of a number of hostages being held there.
Troops have surrounded the offices of the group Chabad Lubavitch, which were stormed by gunmen overnight.

The city's main commuter train station, a hospital, and a restaurant popular with tourists were also among at least seven locations caught up in the violence on Wednesday.

Police say 14 police officers, 81 Indian nationals and six foreigners have been killed. A Japanese businessman and an Italian national were confirmed to be among the dead.

Four suspected terrorists have also been killed and nine arrested, they add.

In other developments:

  • The head of Mumbai's anti-terrorism unit and two other senior officers are among those killed, officials say
  • There are unconfirmed reports that five gunmen have taken hostages in an office block in the financial district of Mumbai
  • The British High Commissioner in India, Sir Richard Stagg, says seven UK citizens are known to be among the injured and believes that figure could rise
  • The White House held a meeting of top intelligence and counter-terrorism officials, and pledged to help the Indian government
  • India's Bombay Stock Exchange and National Stock Exchange markets are closed, as the authorities urge local people to stay at home

Gunmen opened fire at about 2300 local time (1730 GMT) on Wednesday at the sites in southern Mumbai.
Police chief Roy said they used "automatic weapons and in some places grenades have been lobbed."

Local TV images showed blood-splattered streets, and bodies being taken into ambulances.

One eyewitness told the BBC he had seen a gunman opening fire in the Taj Mahal's lobby.
"We all moved through the lobby in the opposite direction and another gunman then appeared towards where we were moving and he started firing immediately in our direction."

One British tourist had been holed up in his room at the Oberoi hotel throughout the night, hearing sporadic gunfire, small explosions and people running up and down the corridor.

"I've barricaded my room, I'm keeping my head down," he told the BBC.

Other tourists told of groups of 20 to 30 people to a room, lying on the floor and staying very quiet.

 

Most of the attacks have been blamed on Muslim militants, although police have also arrested suspected Hindu extremists.

The BBC's Sanjeev Srivastava says the timing and symbolism of the latest attacks could not have been worse.

By choosing to target the richest district of India's financial capital in such a brazen and effective manner, he says those behind the attacks have perhaps dealt the severest blow to date to the morale and self esteem of the Indian authorities.

The attacks have come amidst elections in several Indian states and exposes the governing coalition to the charge that it has failed to combat terror, our correspondent says.

 ~ BBC ~
 

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