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Posted: December 9, 2008 5:00 a.m.

At least 5 hostages dead in Mumbai Jewish Center

Commandos who stormed the Mumbai headquarters of an ultra-orthodox Jewish group found the bodies of five hostages inside, an Israeli emergency medical crew said, as a fresh battle raged at the luxury Taj Mahal hotel and other Indian forces ended a siege at another five-star hotel.

More than 150 people have been killed since gunmen attacked 10 sites across India's financial capital starting Wednesday night, including 22 foreigners — two of them Americans, officials said.

Early Friday night, Indian commandos emerged from a besieged Jewish center with rifles raised in an apparent sign of victory after a daylong siege that saw a team rappel from helicopters and a series of explosions and fire rock the building and blow gaping holes in the wall.

Inside, though, were five dead hostages.

A delegation from Israel's ZAKA emergency medical services unit entered the building after the raid and reported through an Indian aide that five hostages and two gunmen were dead, a ZAKA spokesman in Israel said. The spokesman had no information on the hostages' identities or whether there were wounded inside.

Jewish law requires the burial of a dead person's entire body, and the mission of the ultra-Orthodox ZAKA volunteers is to rescue the living — and in the case of the dead, carry out the task of gathering up all collectable pieces of flesh and blood.

By Friday evening, at least nine gunmen had been killed, one had been arrested and as many as six were still in the Taj Mahal, said R. Patil, a top official in Maharashtra state, where Mumbai is the capital. He said more than 150 people had been killed and 370 injured.

After hours of intermittent gunfire and explosions at the elegant Taj Mahal hotel Friday, the battle heated up at dusk when Indian forces began launching grenades at the hotel, where at least one militant was believed to be holed up inside a ballroom, officials said.

Commandos had killed the two last gunmen inside the nearby Oberoi earlier in the day.

"The hotel is under our control," J.K. Dutt, director general of India's elite National Security Guard commando unit, told reporters, adding that 24 bodies had been found. Dozens of people — including a man clutching a baby — had been evacuated from Oberoi earlier Friday.

The airborne assault on the center run by the ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach group Chabad Lubavitch was punctuated by gunshots and explosions and exchanges of fire as forces cleared it floor by floor, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene.

Nearly 12 hours after the battle began, Indian troops left the building to cheers from the crowd. Mumbai Police Chief Hassan Ghaffoor said "the operation was ongoing" but in its "final stage."

Israel's ambassador to India, Mark Sofer, earlier said they believed there were up to nine hostages inside. He denied reports that Israeli commandos were taking part in the operation.

Moshe Holtzberg, a 2-year-old who was smuggled out of the center by an employee, is now with his grandparents. His grandfather told Israel Radio on Friday that he had no news of Moshe's parents.

Security officials said their operations were almost over.

"It's just a matter of a few hours that we'll be able to wrap up things," Lt. Gen. N. Thamburaj told reporters Friday morning.

The group rescued from the Oberoi, many holding passports, included at least two Americans, a Briton, two Japanese nationals and several Indians. Some carried luggage with Canadian flags. One man in a chef's uniform was holding a small baby. About 20 airline crew members were freed, including staff from Lufthansa and Air France.

"I'm going home, I'm going to see my wife," said Mark Abell, with a huge smile on his face after emerging from the hotel.

Abell, from Britain, had locked himself in his room during the siege. "These people here have been fantastic, the Indian authorities, the hotel staff. I think they are a great advertisement for their country," he said as security officials pulled him away.

The well-coordinated strikes by small bands of gunmen starting Wednesday night left the city shell-shocked.

Late Thursday, after about 400 people had been brought out of the Taj hotel, officials said it had been cleared of gunmen. But Friday morning, army commanders said that while three gunmen had been killed, two to three more were still inside with about 15 civilians.

A few hours after that, Thamburaj, the security official, said at least one gunman was still alive inside the hotel and had cut of electricity on the floor where he was hiding. Shortly after that announcement, another round of explosions and gunfire were heard coming from the hotel.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed "external forces" for the violence — a phrase sometimes used to refer to Pakistani militants, whom Indian authorities often blame for attacks.

On Friday, India's foreign minister ratcheted up the accusations over the attacks.

"According to preliminary information, some elements in Pakistan are responsible for Mumbai terror attacks," Pranab Mukherjee told reporters in the western city of Jodhpur.

"Proof cannot be disclosed at this time," he said, adding that Pakistan had assured New Delhi it would not allow its territory to be used for attacks against India. India has long accused Islamabad of allowing militant Muslim groups, particularly those fighting in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, to train and take shelter in Pakistan. Mukherjee's carefully phrased comments appeared to indicate he was accusing Pakistan-based groups of staging the attack, and not Pakistan itself.

Islamabad has long denied those accusations.

Earlier Friday, Pakistan's Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar, in Islamabad, denied involvement by his country: "I will say in very categoric terms that Pakistan is not involved in these gory incidents."

The gunmen were well-prepared, apparently scouting some targets ahead of time and carrying large bags of almonds to keep up their energy.

"It's obvious they were trained somewhere ... Not everyone can handle the AK series of weapons or throw grenades like that," an unidentified member of India's Marine Commando unit told reporters, his face wrapped in a black mask. He said the men were "very determined and remorseless" and ready for a long siege. One backpack they found had 400 rounds of ammunition inside.

He said the Taj was filled with terrified civilians, making it very difficult for the commandos to fire on the gunmen.

"To try and avoid civilian casualties we had to be so much more careful," he said, adding that hotel was a grim sight. "Bodies were strewn all over the place, and there was blood everywhere."

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.

India has been shaken repeatedly by terror attacks blamed on Muslim militants in recent years, but most were bombings striking crowded places: markets, street corners, parks. Mumbai — one of the most populated cities in the world with some 18 million people — was hit by a series of bombings in July 2006 that killed 187 people.

These attacks were more sophisticated — and more brazen.

They began at about 9:20 p.m. with shooters spraying gunfire across the Chhatrapati Shivaji railroad station, one of the world's busiest terminals. For the next two hours, there was an attack roughly every 15 minutes — the Jewish center, a tourist restaurant, one hotel, then another, and two attacks on hospitals. There were 10 targets in all.

___

Associated Press writers Ramola Talwar Badam, Erika Kinetz, Anita Chang and Jenny Barchfield contributed to this report.

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