Indian Special Forces arriving at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. (Photo Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)
An uneasy nightfall came to Mumbai after a chaotic day of gunfire and explosions in which the toll in the coordinated terrorist attacks rose to 125 dead and more than 325 injured, according to official reports. The injured included three Americans.
Indian officials said in the evening hours today that as many as 30 people could still remain hostage in one of two luxury hotels involved in the still-unfolding drama, one day after militants pounced on India's financial capital, storming several public places, including a Jewish center, train station and hospitals.
Indian military commandos continued to exchange fire with an unknown number of militants. Nine suspects reportedly were in custody.
"The situation is still not under control, and we are trying to flush out any more terrorists hiding inside the two hotels," Vilasrao Deshmukh, chief minister of Maharashtra state, which is home to Mumbai, told Reuters news service.
The attacks apparently targeted American, Israeli and British citizens for use as hostages, the officials said. The dead included at least one Australian, a Japanese and a British national. A dozen police officers also were slain, including the head of Mumbai's anti- terrorist unit.
Throughout the day, U.S. officials in India checked with local authorities and hospitals to learn the extent of casualties involving Americans.
A solemn Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed the nation by television this evening, pledging that the militants "would not succeed in their nefarious design." Singh asserted that the group behind the attacks "was based outside the country" and warned India's neighbors "that the use of their territory for launching attacks on us will not be tolerated."
After past terrorist attacks here, Indian leaders have pointed the finger at Pakistani Islamic extremists or intelligence operatives, two forces that often team up for operations in South Asia. Pakistan's defense minister on Thursday condemned the Mumbai attacks and warned India to refrain from blaming Pakistan, a longtime rival.
On Thursday, President Bush telephoned Singh to express his condolences and offer assistance to India as it works "to restore order, provide safety to its people and comfort to the victims and their families, and investigate these despicable acts," according to a White House spokeswoman.
President-elect Barack Obama's transition team issued a statement condemning the attacks.
The violence began Wednesday evening as militants invaded two luxury hotels favored by foreigners, the Taj Mahal Palace and the Oberoi, firing automatic weapons, throwing grenades and sending panicked guests scrambling for safety and trapping others inside the hotels for hours.
Several witnesses said the gunmen demanded to see passports from cornered guests, separating American and British tourists from the others.
The victims included Mumbai's anti-terrorism chief, Hemant Karkare, and two of his senior police officers, which complicated the law enforcement response to the attacks. Television video showed Karkare donning a flak jacket and helmet minutes before heading into one of the hotels.
Witnesses said the attackers appeared to fire at random and made no effort to hide their identities, which, experts suggested, signaled a readiness to die. Police released a picture of a man with a serene smile wearing a blue T-shirt and holding an automatic weapon, whom they identified as one of the train station attackers.
Local government officials said as many as four attackers were killed and nine suspects were arrested.
Throughout today, a series of explosions and fires continued to rage at the Taj Majal Palace, a landmark along Mumbai's waterfront since 1903. Late in the afternoon, military officials said that most, if not all, of the hostages there had been freed, adding that some guests still might be trapped in their rooms, fearful of emerging amid gunfire.
Soon after dark, numerous Indian commandos emerged from the hotel with guns pointed down, leading observers to surmise that the standoff there was over.
Officials said the commandos seized a small arsenal of weapons that included hand grenades, tear gas pistols, knives and more than 80 magazines of ammunition. Also confiscated were four or five credit cards with the names and pictures of suspected militants, officials said.
But the Oberoi remained a battle zone late into the day.
"Twenty to 30 people are expected to be still hostage at the Oberoi hotel," M.L. Kumawat, an Indian Home Ministry official, said at a news conference.
He said that many of the 21 floors of the Oberoi had been cleared by security agencies, but others were still considered dangerous.
About 6 p.m., 10 hostages staggered out of the Oberoi and into waiting ambulances as explosions and gunfire continued at the hotel.
One hostage, a Polish national, praised the Indian military commandos. Moments later, a man identified as being of Lebanese descent was carried out with two other people, too weary to speak to the throng of reporters.
Hours after nightfall, yet another fire erupted at the Oberoi, this time on the 19th floor, witnesses said, and several people were believed trapped by flames.
A previously unknown group calling itself Deccan Mujahedin on Wednesday said it carried out the attacks, but officials noted that it was unclear whether the claim was true. Throughout today, the Indian media speculated how the nation's intelligence network could have not known about the organization beforehand.
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.
Most of Mumbai remained in shock today. In many neighborhoods, 80% of the businesses remained closed as police warned residents to stay home, where many followed the unfolding drama on television.
Some referred to the attacks as "India's 9/11," comparing the targeting of India's business elite and foreign investors to the 2001 attacks in the United States. Mumbai is South Asia's financial hub and an entertainment capital, and many of the glitzy targets symbolize the new cosmopolitan face of the world's largest democracy.
Once known as Bombay, the city is home to India's commodities and stock exchanges, which remained closed today even as officials worried about the effect of the attacks on foreign investment.
Although Mumbai has been the scene of several terrorist attacks in recent years, experts said Wednesday's assaults required a previously unseen degree of reconnaissance and planning. The scale and synchronization of the attacks pointed to the likely involvement of experienced commanders, some said, suggesting possible foreign involvement.
As many as 16 groups hit nine sites on the southern flank of this crowded metropolis of 19 million. Among the targets were the city's domestic airport and a railway station; the Leopold Cafe, a restaurant popular with foreigners; two hospitals; a police station; and the Mumbai office of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish outreach group, Chabad Lubavitch.
Several at the Jewish center were reportedly taken hostage, including a rabbi and his wife and son. Five other families may have been inside the Chabad House when it was stormed by militants, according to a group in Beijing affiliated with the center.
Western counter-terrorism officials were watching closely today for answers to the key question raised by the Indian prime minister: possible connections to foreign terrorism networks. The timing and dimensions of the Thanksgiving eve assault on multiple Western targets suggest the involvement of Al Qaeda or one of its Pakistani allies, according to two senior European counter-terrorism officials interviewed today.
But officials warned against speculation because the evidence remains limited and the incident is not over. Most Al Qaeda-linked attacks involve bombs and suicide attackers rather than well-trained, commando- style gunmen using automatic weapons and grenades to take hostages.
"The MO is different than previous mass-casualty attacks," said a senior European counter-terrorism official. "It's too early to tell. We are not drawing any definitive conclusions."
In fact, an Indian extremist group could have pulled off the attacks to advance Al Qaeda's war on the West, some experts said. Precedents would be the Madrid train bombings in 2004 or the Bali bombings in 2002, major strikes executed by local militants with only indirect ties - training, ideological contacts - to the core leaders of Al Qaeda, said Louis Caprioli, a former counter-terrorism chief in France.
In either scenario, the masterminds may have intended to send "a challenge to the new president of the United States," Caprioli said.
Glionna is a Times staff writer and Sharma a special correspondent. Times staff writers Mark Magnier in Beijing and Sebastian Rotella in Madrid and special correspondent Hannah Gardner in New Delhi contributed to this report.