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Indian forces launch huge assault on Taj hotel

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2008-11-29

Commandos have carried out major operations at the Taj Mahal hotel and a Jewish centre in India's economic capital overnight Friday. The death toll topped 155 including Israeli, French and US nationals.

Read our special report: 'Terror in Mumbai'


Mumbai gunmen 'showed no remorse'


Extremely heavy gunfire was heard from inside Mumbai's Taj Mahal hotel at dawn Saturday, with a major blaze also breaking out as Indian commandos fought to clear the building of Islamic militants, an AFP correspondent said.

Massive flames in the ground floor and first floor of the hotel appeared to be spreading rapidly though the building, the last area in Mumbai where gunmen were still holed up more than 58 hours after coordinated attacks rocked the city.

Firefighters rushed to the historic hotel, a large part of which was obscured by a huge cloud of smoke.

Military sources had earlier said that commandos were fighting up to three heavily armed militants left inside the hotel.


On Friday, Indian security forces launched massive assaults on Mumbai’s Chabab Jewish centre as well as the Taj and Oberoi hotels on Friday to hunt down the remaining terrorists responsible for a deadly two-day hostage drama in India’s economic capital.


At least 155 people – including two French nationals and two US citizens were killed and about 370 others wounded in a series of coordinated attacks across the city.


At the city’s landmark Taj Mahal Palace hotel, FRANCE 24’s Lise Thomas-Richard said the fighting had been intense during the peak of the operation. “We are reaching the final stages of the operation on the Taj Mahal hotel,” said Thomas-Richard. “I hear explosions or shooting every two minutes.”


Earlier, police found explosives capable of causing "major damage" after regaining control most of the Taj Mahal hotel from armed militants, a senior police official said Friday.


Commandos exited the luxury hotel shortly after the assault and were greeted by a cheering crowd, but fighting soon resumed inside the building.


“There has been constant gunfire and explosions and there is now fire on the second floor of the Taj Mahal hotel,” said FRANCE 24 correspondent Philippe Levasseur at 3 PM Paris time (GMT+1).


Armed militants are still believed to be holed up inside the landmark hotel. Last night, the police thought it had killed or arrested all the terrorists present at the Taj Mahal hotel, but it was not the case," said Stéphanie Lebrun, another FRANCE 24 reporter at the scene. She added that the layout of the hotels made a flushing operation a complicated affair. “This hotel is very large, the terrorists seem to know it well and appeared to have scouted the building. They can hide in it. We do not know how many are left and if they have hostages with them,” said Lebrun.


Confusion at the Jewish centre


Meanwhile, Indian commandos blew a hole in an outside wall surrounding a Jewish centre in Mumbai’s Nariman House in order to enter the complex where several hostages – including Israeli nationals – were being held by militants.


The specialforces found the dead bodies of five Israeli hostages inside, Eli Belotsercovsky, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in New Delhi, told the AFP. The bodies included those of a Brooklyn-based rabbi and his wife, directors of the Chabad-Lubavitch of Mumbai. According to India's National Security Guards chief, J.K. Dutt, the militants killed the five hostages during the commando assault on the building.


Levasseur witnessed numerous angry youths surround the building. “There are dozens of young Indians around the place shouting, telling the soldiers: ‘If you don’t go, we’ll go and catch those terrorists,’” he said.


FRANCE 24’s Jerusalem correspondent Guillaume Auda said Israeli diplomats had difficulty verifying the deaths as crowds had flooded the first floors of the Jewish centre. “The operation is still ongoing in the building’s two top floors”, he said, quoting Israeli officials monitoring the situation.


Foreigners targeted


Earlier on Friday, the chief of India's elite commando unit told reporters that Mumbai’s Oberoi hotel was "under our control" after troops stormed the buildings and battled to free hostages held there since Wednesday evening. According to Dutt, his forces have killed two suspected terrorists there.


"The operation is complete. We have recovered 24 bodies today," Mumbai police chief Hassan Ghafoor told reporters outside the hotel.


Two French nationals - Loumia Hiridjee, founder of the lingerie brand “Princesse tam-tam”, and her husband – were killed in the hotel. “French Ambassador Jérôme Bonnafont has confirmed the death of those two French nationals,” said Levasseur. “They were inside the Oberoi hotel Wednesday night. They were planning to have dinner there with Indian partners. It was a business dinner.”


The US State department later confirmed that two Americans died in the attacks. The victims of the Mumbai attacks included 17 foreigners, including German, Australian, Japansese, British, Canadian, and Italian nationals. It appeared to be the first time attackers in Mumbai – a city that has experienced terrorist violence in the past – were targeting foreign nationals.


It remained unclear whether the two Americans were Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg  and his wife, whom the US branch of the Lubavitch Beit Chabad group reported dead in the Jewish centre, or Alan Scherr and his daughter Naomi, both members of the Synchronicity spiritual movement, who said they were killed in Mumbai.


The heavily armed gunmen allegedly belonged to the Deccan Mujahideen, a previously unknown militant group. One of the gunmen holed up inside the Oberoi on Thursday told India TV by phone that the Islamists had carried out the attacks, which included a shooting rampage at the Mumbai train station, in response to the alleged persecution of Indian Muslims.


Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Friday that British detectives were in India to investigate local TV reports that Britons of Pakistani origin were among gunmen. "We obviously will want to work very, very closely with the Indians on that, but it is too early to say whether or not any of them are British," he told Sky News television.


Armed with assault rifles and grenades, the gunmen began their bloody shooting spree on Wednesday, attacking sites known to be popular with tourists and businessmen such as a café, luxury hotels and a business and residential complex that houses a Jewish centre.

Date created : 2008-11-28