Friday, November 28, 2008

Indian commando forces storm Chabad House in Mumbai

Nov. 27, 2008

Indian commando forces inside the Chabad House were trying to eradicate the building of terrorists, Israel Radio reported early on Friday.

The rescue operation has been underway for over two hours.

According to the report, gun shots were being fired every few minutes and Special Forces continued to enter the five-story building via the roof, rappelling from military helicopters. Hundreds of onlookers, many with binoculars, crowded onto the roofs and in narrow alleys of southern Mumbai, trying to catch a glimpse of the dramatic commando assault.

Earlier in the night, at least three explosions were reported at the building.

Amid the carnage and chaos in Mumbai that left at least 120 people dead, there was mounting fear in Jerusalem for up to 20 Israelis being held hostage by terrorists in the besieged Chabad House.

There were conflicting reports about whether some of the hostages had been freed, and there was grave concern for the lives of Chabad's emissary, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, and his wife Rivka.

Eight people seen outside Chabad House in Mumbai on Thursday night were local Indians from a home in the same compound, and not Jewish or Israeli hostages from the Chabad House, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said, refuting media reports that the Chabad House hostages had been freed.

Palmor said that the ministry's information was obtained from the Mumbai police. This was an indication of the degree to which Jerusalem was watching the dramatic developments in Mumbai with frustration, unable to get clear information about what was transpiring on the ground, and deeply troubled about the fate of an unknown number of Israelis believed to be held hostage.

While throughout the day Foreign Ministry officials were being quoted as saying that 10 to 20 Israelis were among the hostages, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Thursday evening that 32 Israelis believed to be in the city had not yet been accounted for.

Livni said that it was not known how many people were in the Chabad House, and that the situation was "worrisome." The house is a center not only for Israelis visiting the city, but also for Jews from all over the world.

Chabad spokesman Moni Ender in Israel said there were eight Israelis inside the house, including the Chabad rabbi and his wife. Thursday morning Sandra Samuel, a woman who worked at the center and had been barricaded inside, came out of the building with the Holtzbergs' two-year-old son, Moshe.

In addition to the Chabad House, Livni said it was likely that there were also Israelis in the Oberoi Hotel, one of two luxury hotels that the terrorists also took over. No Israelis were believed to be in the other hotel, the Taj Mahal.

The siege at the Taj Mahal, according to an official of the Maharashtra state home department, ended late Thursday night, and the last of three gunmen there was killed.

Livni said she had offered help to Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, her Indian counterpart, in a telephone call on Thursday, noting that a plane was "on standby" if needed.

Livni said the Foreign Ministry's estimates about the number of Israelis involved in the attacks were based on calls received in Israel from people who had not heard from their relatives, believed to be in Mumbai. She said that throughout the day there were some 1,500 phone calls to the ministry's situation room, and that 32 people in

Mumbai had not yet made contact with their relatives in Israel. This number, however, is not believed to be exact, because some people simply may have not called the Foreign Ministry.
Livni, who also spoke during the day with Israeli officials on the ground, said the situation was one of "great confusion."

She said that Israel has been unable to get concrete information, even a list of the names of the people who were registered in the hotels.

Palmor said two Israelis called the consulate in Mumbai from the Oberoi Hotel and said they had barricaded themselves in a room. There was a wedding in the hotel that was attended by a number of Israeli diamond merchants, but all were accounted for, he said.

A regularly-scheduled El Al plane from Mumbai to Tel Aviv was set to depart early Friday morning, and Palmor said that not everyone who booked a place on the flight had yet arrived at the airport. There could be numerous reasons for this, he said, including an inability to get to the airport.

Indian authorities reported that 119 people had died and 288 were wounded when the terrorists, armed with assault rifles, hand grenades and explosives, launched a highly coordinated attack against 10 sites in the city Wednesday night.

Dozens of people were held throughout the day at the hotels and the nearby Chabad House by the well-trained and heavily armed gunmen, authorities said.

While hostages trickled out of the hotels throughout the day, witnesses said many bodies remained inside. Several bodies were carried out of the Taj Mahal Hotel.

Palmor said that so far no Israelis were on the list of dead or wounded drawn up by the Indian authorities.

The attackers had specifically targeted Britons and Americans inside the hotels, witnesses said.

The Maharashtra state home ministry said 84 people had been freed from the Oberoi - 60 of them hostages - and dozens more were still trapped inside. Police said they were going slowly to protect the captives.

Among the dead were at least four Australians and a Japanese national, according to the state home ministry. An Italian, a Briton and a German were also killed, according to their foreign ministries.

The most high-profile target was the Taj Mahal Hotel, a landmark of Mumbai luxury since 1903, and a favorite watering hole of the city's elite.
Police loudspeakers declared a curfew around the hotel Thursday afternoon, and commandos ran into the building as fresh gunshots rang out from the area. Into the night, brief exchanges of gunfire and explosions could be heard coming from the building.

The attackers, dressed in black shirts and jeans, stormed into the hotel at about 9:45 p.m. Wednesday and opened fire indiscriminately.

At least three top Indian police officers - including the chief of the anti-terror squad - were among those killed.

President Shimon Peres said that the events in India must make the world aware of the dangers of terrorism, the need to develop a united and serious strategy in the war against terror and the importance of striking at the core of terror cells in different parts of the world. Peres pointed to
Iran as the heartland of global terrorism, saying that it openly supported terror.

The motive for the onslaught was not immediately clear, but Mumbai has frequently been targeted in terrorist attacks blamed on Islamic extremists, including a series of bombings in July, 2006, that killed 187 people.

An Indian media report said a previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the attacks in e-mails to several media outlets. There was no way to verify that claim. India's prime minister blamed "external forces."

"The well-planned and well-orchestrated attacks, probably with external linkages, were intended to create a sense of panic, by choosing high profile targets and indiscriminately killing foreigners," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in address to the nation.

Mumbai, on the western coast of India overlooking the Arabian Sea, is home to splendid Victorian architecture built during the British Raj and is one of the most populated cities in the world, with some 18 million crammed into shantytowns, high rises and crumbling mansions.

Among the other places attacked was the 19th century Chhatrapati Shivaji railroad station - a beautiful example of Victorian Gothic architecture - where gunmen sprayed bullets into the crowded terminal, leaving the floor splattered with blood.

"They just fired randomly at people and then ran away. In seconds, people fell to the ground," said
Nasim Inam, a witness.

Other gunmen attacked Leopold's restaurant, a landmark popular with foreigners, and the police headquarters in southern Mumbai, the area where most of the attacks took place. Gunmen also attacked Cama and Albless Hospital and G.T. Hospital.

Livni, in her conversation during the day with Foreign Minister Mukherjee, said, "Israel, India and the rest of the free world are positioned in the forefront of the battle against terrorism and extremists. Unfortunately, we were harshly reminded of this once again yesterday. The struggle against terror must be a communal struggle, and compels us to improve our cooperation on this front."

Meanwhile, Magen David Adom dispatched a team of paramedics, medics and other professionals to Mumbai Thursday to assist with rescue efforts in the wake of the attacks. The delegation will help to treat casualties and locate missing persons, in coordination with the Foreign Ministry, the Joint
Distribution Committee and the International Red Cross.

The team will also assist in making arrangements for any Israeli casualties to be flown home. In addition, MDA put together a team of reservists, which will be on stand-by in case additional rescuers are needed.

MDA Director-General Eli Bin instructed the delegation to stay in constant contact with Red Cross representatives and to provide as much medical and other assistance as possible.

Also, an international response team of two ZAKA paramedics and a further six ZAKA volunteers headed to Mumbai.

Greer Fay Cashman and Judy Siegel contributed to this report.
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