Several sites in Mumbai, India's financial capital, were hit Wednesday night by a wave of terror attacks, reportedly aimed at Americans and Britons, that left dozens dead and potentially hundreds injured as Indian forces battled with terrorist gunmen to free hostages from two luxury hotels.
Several staff members were killed at the Taj Mahal hotel, and India's NDTV reported Thursday morning that gunfire still was erupting as part of an ongoing "desperate hostage situation" there, with three or four terrorists inside. Earlier, some of the hostages were rescued when a fire broke out.
Gunmen reportedly had taken hostages elsewhere in the city, including the Oberoi hotel and a hospital, though the status at those locations wasn't immediately clear as dawn broke.
Casualty figures varied, with the Associated Press reporting at least 82 dead. Reuters reported 86 people were killed, including 11 police officers, and 250 people were injured. The Associated Press, quoting a senior police official, said the chief of India's anti-terror squad was one of the dead.
Of the gunmen, at least six were dead and nine had been arrested, according to the Associated Press.
It isn't clear yet what motivated the attacks, which also targeted a popular tourist attraction and a crowded train station, though eyewitnesses said gunmen were heard shouting questions seeking people with American and British passports.
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 organization calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen claimed it was behind Wednesday's attacks. Some analysts suggest that the little-known group is actually an amalgam of existing Indian terror groups, including the Mujahideen Kashmir.
"The terrorists have used automatic weapons and in some places grenades have been lobbed," Maharashtra Police Commissioner A.N Roy said.
The White House condemned the attacks.
"President Bush offers his condolences to the Indian people and the families of the innocent civilians killed and injured in the attacks in Mumbai, India. ... We will continue to stand with the people of India in this time of tragedy," Press Secretary Dana Perino said in a written statement. "The U.S. government continues to monitor the situation, including the safety and security of our citizens, and stands ready to assist and support the Indian government."
The State Department established a Consular Call Center for Americans concerned about family or friends who may be visiting or living in Mumbai. The number is 888-407-4747.
"These coordinated attacks on innocent civilians demonstrate the grave and urgent threat of terrorism," said Brooke Anderson, President-elect Barack Obama's chief national security spokesperson. "We stand with the people of India, whose democracy will prove far more resilient than the hateful ideology that led to these attacks,”
Recent Attacks on Americans or American Interests in India
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.
Officials also reported that terrorists attacked the city's Cama and Albless Hospital and G.T. Hospital, but it was not immediately clear if anyone was killed in those places.
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 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," 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.
The Associated Press, Reuters and Sky News contributed to this report.