MUMBAI, India — Indian commandos were preparing to storm the Taj Hotel, Trident-Oberoi and a Jewish center in India's financial capital where militants had trapped or taken hostage scores of people, witnesses and TV channels said, Reuters reported on Thursday.
A short while earlier a huge explosion was heard in the Taj Hotel.
Earlier, black-clad Indian commandos liberated some hostages and recovered a few bodies in the Taj Mahal hotel, nearly a day after teams of gunmen stormed landmarks in the city, killing at least 101 people.
The attacks, which were blamed on Muslim militants, targeted two luxury hotels, a popular restaurant, a crowded train station and a Jewish center. Anees Ahmed, a top state official, had said authorities believed up to 15 foreigners were being held hostage at the Taj Mahal hotel.
Dozens of people were still trapped or held captive on Thursday, among them Americans, Britons, Italians, Swedes, Canadians, Yemenis and New Zealanders. Officials say Australian, Japanese and British nationals are among the dead.
Witnesses said the attackers had specifically targeted Britons and Americans.
Police and gunmen had been exchanging occasional gunfire at the two hotels and dozens of people were believed held hostage or trapped inside the besieged buildings. Pradeep Indulkar, a senior official at the Maharashtra state Home Ministry said that in addition to the 101 people slain, 314 had been injured.
Officials said eight militants had also been killed in the coordinated attacks on at least 10 sites that began around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday.
A series of explosions had rocked the Taj Mahal just after midnight. Screams were heard and black smoke and flames billowed from the century-old edifice on Mumbai's waterfront. Firefighters sprayed water at the blaze and plucked people from balconies with extension ladders. By dawn, the fire was still burning.
At the nearby upscale Oberoi hotel, soldiers could be seen on the roof of neighboring buildings. A banner hung out of one window read "save us." No one could be seen inside the room from the road.
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. The Taj Mahal hotel, filled with Oriental carpets, Indian artifacts and alabaster ceilings, overlooks the fabled Gateway of India that commemorated the visit of King George V and Queen Mary.
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.
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 explosions struck a park and crowded shopping areas in the capital, New Delhi, killing 21 people and wounding about 100.
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.
Officials at Bombay Hospital, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a Japanese man had died there and nine Europeans had been admitted, three of them in critical condition with gunshots. All had come from the Taj Mahal, the officials said.
The NDTV news channel reported that an explosion had been heard at the Trident hotel and that several Israelis were among hostages being held on the 19th floor. NDTV said commandos were preparing for a counterassault there.
At least three top Indian police officers — including the chief of the anti-terror squad — were among those killed, said A.N. Roy, a top police official.
Alex Chamberlain, a British citizen who was dining at the Oberoi, told Sky News television that a gunman ushered 30 to 40 people from the restaurant into a stairway and, speaking in Hindi or Urdu, ordered everyone to put up their hands.
"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.
"I guess they were after foreigners, because they were asking for British or American passports," said Rakesh Patel, a British witness who lives in Hong Kong and was staying at the Taj Mahal hotel on business. "They had bombs."
"They came from the restaurant and took us up the stairs," he told the NDTV news channel, smoke stains all over his face. "Young boys, maybe 20 years old, 25 years old. They had two guns."
Police commandos surrounded the headquarters Thursday of the ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach group Chabad Lubavitch, which gunmen had seized overnight during a series of coordinated attacks across this seaside city.
Thousands of gawkers stood in the narrow alleyways near the white, five-story building, where heavy curtains hung behind windows broken by gunfire. Neighbors had tried to protect the house as armed gunmen seized it Wednesday night.
A witness said three people were killed in the attack, but the account could not be confirmed.
"It seems that the terrorists commandeered a police vehicle which allowed them easy access to the area of the Chabad house and threw a grenade at a gas pump nearby," said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, a spokesman for the Lubavitch movement in New York, adding the attackers then "stormed the Chabad house."
The house serves as an educational center, a synagogue and offers drug prevention services.
Residents tried to protect the center, clashing with the gunmen and throwing rocks at them in an effort to drive the militants away, said Puran Doshi, a local businessman who lives nearby.
The crowd eventually retreated under fire from the gunmen, who wounded one man, killed three others and threw several hand grenades, he said. Police could not immediately confirm his account.
"They shot indiscriminately into the crowd," Doshi said.
Sanjay Bhasme, 40, who lives in the building behind Chabad house, said he notified the police after the shooting began about 9:45 p.m., but no police arrived for more than 30 minutes — and only after he'd repeatedly telephoned for help.
Shmotkin said he had been unable to confirm reports that a couple and a teenager had been killed in the melee. He did not know the status of Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, the main representative at Chabad house, or the rabbi's family.
'Catch them dead or alive'
Early Thursday, state Home Secretary Bipin Shrimali said four suspects had been killed in two incidents in Mumbai when they tried to flee in cars, and Roy said four more gunmen were killed at the Taj Mahal. State Home Minister R.R. Patil said nine more were arrested. They declined to provide any further details.
"We're going to catch them dead or alive," Patil told reporters. "An attack on Mumbai is an attack on the rest of the country."
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. There was no way to verify that claim.
The state government ordered schools and colleges and the Bombay Stock Exchange closed Thursday.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said U.S. officials were not aware of any American casualties, but were still checking.
"We condemn these attacks and the loss of innocent life," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.
Gun attack on train station
Blood smeared the grounds of the 19th century Chhatrapati Shivaji railroad station — a beautiful example of Victorian Gothic architecture — where attackers sprayed bullets into the crowded terminal.
Photos in the Mumbai Mirror newspaper showed a young gunman — dressed like a college student in cargo pants and a black T-shirt — walking casually through the station, an assault rifle hanging from one hand and two knapsacks slung over a shoulder.
Nasim Inam, a witness said four of the attackers gunned down scores of commuters. "They just fired randomly at people and then ran away. In seconds, people fell to the ground."
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 was blood on the floor and shoes left by fleeing customers. Gunmen also attacked Cama and Albless Hospital and G.T. Hospital, though it was not immediately clear if anyone was killed.
Early Thursday, several European lawmakers were among those 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 cell phone.
Hours later, Karim remained holed up in a hotel restaurant, unsure if it was safe to come out.
The Associated Press, NBC News and Reuters contributed to this report.