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Indian Commandos Battle To Regain Hotels

An Indian soldier patrols outside Nariman House, the scene of one of the attacks
MUMBAI (Reuters) -- Indian commandos battled to regain control of buildings and hotels in the commercial capital of Mumbai on ThursdayNovemeber 27 after attacks by armed militants blamed by the prime minister on a "terrorist" group outside the country.

"The situation is still not under control and we are trying to flush out any more terrorists hiding inside the two hotels," said Vilasrao Deshmukh, chief minister of Maharashtra state which is home to Mumbai.

Police said 119 people were killed and 315 were wounded when gunmen -- at least some of whom arrived by sea -- fanned out across Mumbai to attack sites popular with tourists and businessmen, including two luxury hotels.

The death toll was only an estimate in a situation which brought the biggest chaos to the city since serial bombings in 1993 killed several hundred people in what was seen as revenge for the death of Muslims in Hindu-Muslim violence.

With the drama still unfolding, the final death toll could be higher.

Police said Indian commandos were fighting room to room battles to save people trapped inside two luxury hotels.

At least 10 Israeli nationals were also trapped in buildings or held hostage, an Israeli embassy official in New Delhi said. "It could be 10 to 20, it could be more," said the official, who declined to be named. "I don't think it is less than 10."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed militant groups based in India's neighbours, usually meaning Pakistan, raising fears of renewed tension between the nuclear-armed rivals.

"It is evident that the group which carried out these attacks, based outside the country, had come with single-minded determination to create havoc in the commercial capital of the country," he said in a televised address.

"We will take the strongest possible measures to ensure that there is no repetition of such terrorist acts."

Helicopters buzzed overhead and crowds cheered as the commandos, their faces blackened, moved into the Trident-Oberoi, where 20 to 30 people were thought to have been taken hostage and more than 100 others were trapped in their rooms.

Huge flames billowed from an upper floor.

Earlier, explosions rattled the nearby Taj Hotel, a 105-year-old city landmark on the waterfront, as the troops flushed out the last of the militants there. Fire and smoke plumed from an open window.

Dipak Dutta told NDTV news after being rescued that he had been told by troops escorting him through the corridors not to look down at any of the bodies.

"A lot of chef trainees were massacred in the kitchen."

At least six foreigners, including one Australian, a Briton, an Italian, and a Japanese national were killed.

Commandos had gathered earlier outside a Jewish centre where a rabbi was thought to have been taken hostage, but later apparently decided to hold off from an assault.

A militant holed up at the centre phoned an Indian television channel to offer talks with the government for the release of hostages, but also to complain about abuses in Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars.

"Ask the government to talk to us and we will release the hostages," the man, identified by the India TV channel as Imran, said, speaking in Urdu in what sounded like a Kashmiri accent.

"Are you aware how many people have been killed in Kashmir? Are you aware how your army has killed Muslims. Are you aware how many of them have been killed in Kashmir this week?"

Walking Through Blood

Around two dozen militants in their early 20s, armed with automatic rifles and grenades and carrying backpacks full of ammunition, had fanned out across Mumbai on November 26.

At least some of them had come ashore in what police said was a rubber dinghy.

They commandeered a vehicle and sprayed passersby with bullets, fired indiscriminately in a train station, hospitals and a popular tourist cafe. They also attacked two of the city's poshest hotels packed with tourists and business executives.

Those who survived told harrowing stories of close encounters. Australian actress Brooke Satchwell, who starred in the Neighbours television soap opera, said she narrowly escaped the gunmen by hiding in a hotel bathroom cupboard.

"There was people getting shot in the corridor. There was someone dead outside the bathroom," the shaken actress told Australian television. "The next thing I knew I was running down the stairs and there were a couple of dead bodies across the stairs. It was chaos."

"We threw ourselves down under the reception counter," Esperanza Aguirre, head of Madrid's regional government, said.

"I took off my shoes and we left being pushed along by the hotel staff," she said. "I didn't see any terrorists or injured people. I just saw the blood I had to walk through barefoot."

Singh said New Delhi would "take up strongly" the use of neighbors' territory to launch attacks on India.

"The well-planned and well-orchestrated attacks, probably with external linkages, were intended to create a sense of terror by choosing high-profile targets."

The use of heavily armed "fedayeen" or suicide attackers bears the hallmarks of Pakistan-based militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammed, blamed for a 2001 attack on India's parliament.

Both groups made their name fighting Indian rule in disputed Kashmir, and were closely linked in the past to the Pakistani military's Inter Services Intelligence agency, the ISI.

Lashkar-e-Taiba denied any role in the attacks, and said it had no links with any Indian group. Instead, the little-known Deccan Mujahideen claimed responsibility.

"Release all the mujahideens, and Muslims living in India should not be troubled," said a militant inside the Oberoi, speaking to Indian television by telephone.

The attacks were expected to spook investors in one of Asia's largest and fastest-growing economies.

Authorities closed stock, bond and foreign exchange markets, and the central bank said it would continue auctions to keep cash flowing through interbank lending markets, which seized up after the global financial crisis.

One of the first targets was the Cafe Leopold, a famous hangout popular with foreign tourists.

The attackers then appeared to target British, Americans and Israelis as they sought hostages in the hotels and elsewhere.

The attacks were another blow for the Congress party-led government ahead of a general election due by early 2009, with the party already under fire for failing to prevent a string of bomb attacks on Indian cities.

Police said they had shot seven gunmen and arrested nine suspects. They said 12 policemen were killed, including Hemant Karkare, the chief of the police anti-terrorist squad in Mumbai.