MUMBAI, India – Masked Indian commandos dropped from helicopters Friday onto the roof of a Jewish center in Mumbai where Muslim militants were holed up, possibly with hostages, as sharpshooters kept up a steady stream of fire at the five-story building.
The assault was punctuated by gunshots and explosions from within the building as the forces cleared the building floor-by floor. Elsewhere in the city, commandos scoured two luxury hotels for suspected Muslim attackers still holed up more than a day after a chain of attacks across India's financial center by the militants left at least 119 people dead.
Hundreds of people had been captive in the two hotels, many locking themselves in their rooms or trying to hide as the gunmen roamed the buildings.
One victim was British-Cypriot Andreas Dionysiou Liveras, 73, the owner of a luxury yacht business, said the Cypriot foreign ministry and his brother, Theophanis Liveras.
Andreas Dionysiou Liveras, who was attending a conference, had spoken to the British Broadcasting Corp. from a locked room inside the Taj Hotel before he was killed.
"As we sat at the table we heard the machine gun fire outside in the corridor. We hid under the table and then they switched all the lights off. ... All we know is the bombs are next door and the hotel is shaking every time a bomb goes off," he said.
At the headquarters of the ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach group Chabad Lubavitch, a commando assault began shortly after dawn following a tense night in which six trucks of soldiers had been brought in to surround the building.
Snipers stationed in buildings opposite the center began the attack, with sustained fire on the building as at least nine commandos lowered themselves by rope onto the roof from a circling Indian air force helicopter.
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.
It was not immediately clear if there were hostages in the building or their fate.
On Thursday morning, two workers and a child escaped from the building, the only people to emerge so far. The child was identified as Moshe Holtzberg, 2, the son of Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, the main representative at Chabad house. The child was unharmed, but his clothes were soaked in blood.
The well-coordinated strikes by small bands of gunmen starting Wednesday night left the city shell-shocked, but the sporadic gunfire and explosions at the Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels dwindled overnight, indicating the sieges there might be winding down.
Security forces searched room by room at the hotels — two of the top gathering spots for the Mumbai elite — but there were no gunbattles or blasts. Commandos had spent much of Thursday bringing out hostages, trapped guests and corpses from the hotels in small groups while firefighters battled flames that erupted. The fires were out by Friday.
The Maharashtra state home ministry said dozens of hostages had been freed from the Oberoi and dozens more were still trapped inside. More than 400 people were brought out of the Taj Mahal on Thursday.
Authorities said they had killed three gunmen at the Taj. However, army commanders said they believed there were still two or three more militants in the Taj and about 15 civilians. "We need to get them out of the rooms they have locked themselves into," said Brig. Bobby Mathews.
State officials said 119 people had died and 288 were injured in the attacks.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed "external forces" for the violence — a phrase sometimes used to refer to Pakistani militants, whom Indian authorities often blame attacks on.
The gunmen were well-prepared, even carrying large bags of almonds to keep up their energy during the fight. Their main targets appeared to be Americans, Britons and Jews, though most of the dead seemed to be Indians and foreign tourists caught in the random gunfire.
The gunmen — some of whom strode casually through their targets in khakis and T-shirts — clearly came ready for a siege.
"They have AK-47s and grenades. They have bags full of grenades and have come fully prepared," said Maj. Gen. R.K. Hooda.
Ratan Tata, who runs the company that owns the elegant Taj Mahal, said they had detailed knowledge of the layout of the hotels.
A U.S. investigative team was heading to Mumbai, a State Department official said Thursday evening, speaking on condition of anonymity because the U.S. and Indian governments were still working out final details. The official declined to identify which agency or agencies the team members came from.
India has been shaken repeatedly by terror attacks blamed on Muslim militants in recent years, but most of them were coordinated bombings striking random crowded places: markets, street corners, parks.
Analysts around the world were debating whether the gunmen could have been tied to — or inspired by — Al Qaeda.
"It's clear that it is Al Qaedastyle," but probably not carried out by the group's militants, said Rohan Gunaratna, of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore and author of "Inside Al Qaeda."
Indian media reports said a previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen claimed responsibility in e-mails to several media outlets. The Deccan is a region in southern India that was traditionally ruled by Muslim kings.