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Terror siege ends in India

MUMBAI, India — Indian commandos smothered the last nest of terrorist resistance early this morning, the fourth day of a siege that has shaken India, raised tensions with neighboring Pakistan and prompted searing questions about the failure of the authorities to anticipate the attack or to react swiftly as it unfolded.

Commandos killed two militants making a last stand at the Taj Mahal hotel today, ending days of terror that killed more than 150 people since gunmen began their assault at 10 sites across India's financial capital Wednesday night. Five Americans are among the dead.

"The Taj operation is over. The last two terrorists holed up there have been killed," police Chief Hasan Ghafoor said.

Fire and smoke poured from the hotel today as Indian forces ended the siege in a hail of gunfire, just hours after elite commandos stormed a Jewish center and found six hostages dead.

At the Oberoi hotel, where 30 bodies were found Friday, authorities said two gunmen had been killed and 93 foreigners — some of them in Air France and Lufthansa uniforms — had been rescued. Exhausted survivors offered harrowing accounts of being trapped on the upper floors of the high-rise hotel while gunmen prowled below.

Two Americans, Alan Scherr, 58, and daughter Naomi, 13, were identified as among the Oberoi victims. They were visiting as part of a Virginia spiritual community.

India's foreign minister openly blamed "elements in Pakistan" for the attacks. U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials said Friday there was mounting evidence that a Pakistani militant group — Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has long been involved in the conflict with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir — was responsible. A team of FBI agents was ordered to fly to India to investigate the attacks.

Indian authorities were beginning to face sharp questions about why operations to flush out a handful of assailants at the Jewish center and the Taj had not moved more rapidly.

In the most dramatic of the counterstrikes, masked Indian commandos rappelled Friday morning from a helicopter to the rooftop of the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish center as snipers laid down cover fire. For nearly 12 hours, explosions and gunfire erupted from the five-story building as the commandos fought their way downward.

The assault blew huge holes in the center, and, at one point, Indian forces fired a rocket at the building. Soon after, elated commandos ran outside with their rifles raised over their heads in a sign of triumph.

But inside the Chabad House was a scene of tragedy.

The bodies of New York Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his Israeli wife, Rivkah, were found at the center. Also found dead there were Bentzion Chroman, an Israeli with dual U.S. citizenship; and Leibish Teitlebaum, an American from Brooklyn, said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, a spokesman for the Chabad Lubavitch movement, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group that runs outreach centers around the world.

The Taj was wracked by hours of intermittent gunfire and explosions this morning before the standoff finally ended, even though authorities said earlier that they had cleared it of gunmen.

By Friday evening, at least nine gunmen had been killed and one arrested, said R. Patil, a top official in Maharashtra state, where Mumbai is the capital.

Indian commandos said the attackers at the hotels were well-trained, with one carrying a backpack with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and they seemed to know the buildings' layout better than security forces, indicating a high degree of preparation and sophistication. Some were seen arriving by boat; others may have been guests at the hotels for days.

The leader of a commando unit involved in a gunbattle on Thursday morning inside the Taj said Friday that he had seen a dozen dead bodies in one of the rooms. The attackers were "very familiar with the layout of the hotel," said the commander, who disguised himself to hide his identity. The militants, who appeared to be under 30 years old, were "determined" and "remorseless," he said.

fast facts

Bombay/Mumbai

In 1995, the newly elected India legislature said it was changing the name of the port city of Bombay to Mumbai, after the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi. British colonials in the 17th century were the first to call the seven islands and harbor Bombay, possibly a corruption of the earlier Portuguese name Bom Bahia, or Good Bay. "Bombay" is still used — the Times of India's city supplement is the Bombay Times, and it's the Bombay Stock Exchange — although many Hindu nationalists continue to press them to change their names. Several other Indian cities have changed their names, including Madras, which became Chennai in 1996, and Calcutta (Kolkata, 2001).

Terror siege ends in India 11/28/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 30, 2008 10:09am]
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