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Archive for Monday, December 1, 2008

India clears last siege site; Rice to visit after NATO event

December 1, 2008

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— Authorities finished removing bodies from the bullet-and-grenade-scarred Taj Mahal hotel today, the final site of the Mumbai siege to be cleared, and said the death toll from the attack stood at 172 killed.

Security forces were scouring the 565 room hotel for booby traps and bodies, and declared the landmark building cleared two days after they killed the last three militants holed up inside following a deadly, three-day rampage in India’s financial center.

“We were apprehensive about more bodies being found. But this is not likely — all rooms in the Taj have been opened and checked,” said Maharashtra state government spokesman Bhushan Gagrani.

The army had already cleared two other sites, the five-star Oberoi hotel and the headquarters of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish Center.

President George W. Bush on Sunday dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to New Delhi in support of India following the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 200 people, including six Americans.

Rice and Bush wanted an opportunity “to express the condolences of the American government directly to the Indian government and the Indian people,” Rice spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Rice was scheduled to leave Sunday night for a meeting in London and then travel to Brussels for a NATO gathering. On Wednesday, following the NATO meeting, she will travel to New Delhi, according to her new itinerary.

The only gunman captured after the 60-hour terrorist siege of Mumbai said he belonged to a Pakistani militant group with links to the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, a senior police officer said.

The gunman was one of 10 who paralyzed the city in an attack that killed at least 172 people and wounded 239 and revealed the weakness of India’s security apparatus. India’s top law enforcement official resigned Sunday, bowing to growing criticism that the attackers appeared better trained, better coordinated and better armed than police.

The announcement blaming militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba threatened to escalate tensions between India and Pakistan. However, Indian officials have been cautious about accusing Pakistan’s government of complicity.

Lashkar, long seen as a creation of the Pakistani intelligence service to help fight India in disputed Kashmir, was banned in Pakistan in 2002 under pressure from the U.S., a year after Washington and Britain listed it a terrorist group. It is since believed to have emerged under another name, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, though that group has denied links to the Mumbai attack.

As more details of the response to the attack emerged, a picture formed of woefully unprepared security forces.

“These guys could do it next week again in Mumbai and our responses would be exactly the same,” said Ajai Sahni, head of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management who has close ties to India’s police and intelligence.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised to strengthen maritime and air security and look into creating a new federal investigative agency.

Joint Police Commissioner Rakesh Maria said the only known surviving gunman, Ajmal Qasab, told police he was trained at a Lashkar-e-Taiba camp in Pakistan.

“Lashkar-e-Taiba is behind the terrorist acts in the city,” he said.

A spokesman for Pakistani President Asif Zardari’s spokesman dismissed the claim.

In the first wave of the attacks, two young gunmen armed with assault rifles blithely ignored more than 60 police officers patrolling the city’s main train station and sprayed bullets into the crowd.

Bapu Thombre, assistant commissioner with the Mumbai railway police, said the police were armed mainly with batons or World War I-era rifles and spread out across the station.

“They are not trained to respond to major attacks,” he said.

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