MUMBAI, India – Teams of heavily armed gunmen stormed luxury hotels, a popular restaurant and a crowded train station in coordinated attacks across India's financial capital Wednesday night, killing at least 78 people and taking Westerners hostage, police said. An explosion followed by a raging fire struck one of the hotels, the landmark Taj Mahal, early Thursday. Screams could be heard and enormous clouds of black smoke rose from the at the century-old edifice on Mumbai's waterfront. Firefighters were spraying water at the blaze.
The attackers specifically targeted Britons and Americans, witnesses said. Fires burned and gunfire was heard for hours. Officials said at least 200 people were wounded.
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 2007 that killed 187 people.
An Indian media report said a previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen had claimed responsibility for the attacks in e-mails to several media outlets.
Police reported hostages being held at the Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels, two of the best-known upscale destinations in this crowded but wealthy city.
Gunmen who burst into the Taj "were targeting foreigners. They kept shouting: 'Who has U.S. or U.K. passports?'" said Ashok Patel, a British citizen who fled from the hotel.
Authorities believed seven to 15 foreigners were prisoners at the Taj Mahal, but it was not immediately clear if hostages at the Oberoi were Indians or foreigners, said Anees Ahmed, a top state official.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said U.S. officials were not aware of any American casualties, but were still checking. He said he could not address reports that Westerners might be among the hostages.
"We condemn these attacks and the loss of innocent life," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.
Johnny Joseph, chief secretary for Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, said 78 people had been killed and 200 had been wounded.
Blood smeared the floor of the Chhatrapati Shivaji rail station, where attackers sprayed bullets into the crowded terminal. Press Trust of India quoted the chief of the Mumbai railway police, A.K. Sharma, as saying several men armed with rifles and grenades were holed up at the station.
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. The restaurant was riddled with bullet holes and there were blood on the floor and shoes left by fleeing customers.
A British citizen who was dining at the Oberoi hotel told Sky News television that the gunmen who struck there singled out Britons and Americans.
Alex Chamberlain said a gunman, a young man of 22 or 23, ushered 30 or 40 people from the restaurant into a stairway and ordered everyone to put up their hands. He said the gunman spoke in Hindi or Urdu.
"They were talking about British and Americans specifically. 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. And I thought: 'Fine, they're going to shoot me if they ask me anything — and thank God they didn't," he said.
Chamberlain said he managed to slip away as the patrons were forced to walk up stairs, but he thought much of the group was being held hostage.
Early Thursday, several European lawmakers were among people who barricaded themselves inside the Taj, a century-old seaside hotel complex and one of the city's best-known destinations.
"I was in the main lobby and there was all of a sudden a lot of firing outside," said Sajjad Karim, part of a delegation of European lawmakers visiting Mumbai ahead of a European Union-India summit.
As he turned to get away, "all of a sudden another gunmen 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," he told The Associated Press over his mobile phone.
Hours later, Karim remained holed up in a hotel restaurant, unsure if it was safe to come out.
The British Foreign Office said it was advising all British citizens in Mumbai to stay indoors.
Britain's foreign secretary, David Miliband, strongly condemned the attacks. "Today's attacks in Mumbai which have claimed many innocent victims remind us, yet again, of the threat we face from violent extremists," Miliband said in a statement.
India has been wracked by bomb attacks the past three years, which police blame on Muslim militants intent on destabilizing this largely Hindu country. Nearly 700 people have died.
Since May a militant group calling itself the Indian Mujahideen has taken credit for a string of blasts that killed more than 130 people. The most recent was in September, when a series of explosions struck a park and crowded shopping areas in the capital, New Delhi, killing 21 people and wounding about 100.
Mumbai has been hit repeatedly by terror attacks since March 1993, when Muslim underworld figures tied to Pakistani militants allegedly carried out a series of bombings on Mumbai's stock exchange, trains, hotels and gas stations. Authorities say those attacks, which killed 257 people and wounded more than 1,100, were carried out to avenge the deaths of hundreds of Muslims in religious riots that had swept India.
Ten years later, in 2003, 52 people were killed in Mumbai bombings blamed on Muslim militants and in July 2007 a series of seven blasts on railway trains and at commuter rail stations killed at least 187.
Relations between Hindus, who make up more than 80 percent of India's 1 billion population, and Muslims, who make up about 14 percent, have sporadically erupted into bouts of sectarian violence since British-ruled India was split into independent India and Pakistan in 1947.
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