Explosions were heard even after a hostage standoff ended at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace hotel on Thursday, and another hotel was still under siege as the city reeled from a coordinated terrorist assault that has killed 101 people and injured over 300.
Police were searching the Taj Mahal Palace room by room at about 10:30 on Thursday morning, according to the BBC, but by 11:15 witnesses reported hearing new explosions from inside the hotel, which was already burning from a suspected grenade explosion on Wednesday night. Other witnesses reported explosions at the Trident/Oberoi Hotel and the Nariman House, a Jewish center in Mumbai. All three buildings — targets of a terrorist assault on Mumbai on Wednesday — had been entered by Indian military commandos, according to Indian media.
Islamist gunmen had arrived by boats and invaded at least 10 “soft targets” on Wednesday evening, including the Jewish center, the two hotels, the landmark Café Leopold, hospitals and a railway station, where they sprayed commuters at random with bullets. Hostage standoffs at the Taj Mahal and Trident/Oberoi led — even hours later — to gun skirmishes with police and, at the Taj Mahal, images of a fire.
Gunmen were also holding hostages at the Nariman House, the Mumbai office of the ultra-orthodox Jewish group Chabad Lubavitch. “It seems that the terrorists commandeered a police vehicle which allowed them easy access to the area of the Chabad house,” said a spokesman for the Lubavitch movement in New York, Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin. By 10:30 a.m. local time police had freed at least three of the hostages, but the status of the occupants of the house wasn’t clear.
All hostages at the Taj Mahal have been freed, according to state police chief A. N. Roy. “People who were held up there, they have all been rescued,” he told the NDTV news channel. “But there are guests in the rooms, we don’t know how many,” he said.
Indian TV also showed images late on Thursday morning of hostages being freed from the Oberoi, where at least one German guest has died.
A militant inside the Oberoi talked to Indian TV by telephone. “Release all the mujahedeens (from Indian jails), and Muslims living in India should not be troubled,” he said. He added that seven armed militants were inside the hotel, and said his name was Sahadullah.
Terrorism experts had never heard of the group claiming responsibility, the Deccan Mujahideen. Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism specialist at the Swedish National Defense College, said there were “very strong suspicions of a link to al-Qaida,” but other experts said the attacks had no apparent hallmarks of al-Qaida or the South Asian terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba.
“There’s absolutely nothing al-Qaida-like about it,” Christine Fair, senior political scientist at the RAND corporation, told the International Herald Tribune. “Did you see any suicide bombers? And there are no fingerprints of Lashkar. They don’t do hostage taking, and they don’t do grenades.”
“Deccan” refers to a region of central and southern India, so the terrorists may belong to India’s disgruntled, domesitic Islamic minority. Homegrown radical Muslims have plagued India for years, notably in 2006, when bombs on Mumbai’s train and subway lines killed 187.
Some reports said the terrorists on Wednesday were out to kill US and British citizens. A Briton who had been eating at the Oberoi hotel restaurant said he was herded by a young gunman into a stairway with 30 or 40 other people. “They were talking about British and Americans specifically,” Alex Chamberlain told Sky News. “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.”
A group of European lawmakers had been barricaded inside the Taj Mahal during the hostage standoff. Sajjad Karim belonged to a European Union delegation which was visiting Mumbai ahead of an EU-India summit. “I was in the main lobby and there was all of a sudden a lot of firing outside,” Karim told the Associated Press. When he turned to escape, “all of a sudden another gunman appeared in front of us, carrying machine-gun-type weapons. And he just started firing at us … I just turned and ran in the opposite direction.”
Mumbai, or Bombay, is India’s financial center, and the Indian stock exchange was closed after Wednesday’s attacks. Muslim terrorism has been a sporadic fact of life there since 1993, when Islamist organized crime figures with links to Pakistan staged a number of bomb attacks on the city’s stock exchange, trains, hotels and gas stations — in the wake of religious riots which had killed hundreds of Muslims across India.