Reports differ over release of Mumbai Chabad center captives
Indian state officials say 8 hostages freed, diplomat says no one released, 8 were hiding nearby.
As India reeled from a series of bloody attacks launched by Islamist extremists across Mumbai, a diplomat who has been monitoring the events closely said no hostages had been released from the besieged headquarters of the ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach group Chabad Lubavitch, contradicting earlier reports.
Indian state officials said earlier that eight hostages had been released. India's IBN network expanded on the report and said that two of those released were foreigners. Other Indian networks also reported that between 7 and 10 hostages had been freed by Indian security services.
The diplomat said the eight people had likely been hiding in a nearby building.
Several Israeli officials, including the Foreign Ministry, also said the report of released hostages was unverified and based on unconfirmed rumors. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said she had no specific information regarding the number of Israelis currently held hostage in Mumbai.
The conflicting reports came as ongoing terror attacks at ten different locations across Mumbai since Wednesday night had left at least 125 people dead and hundreds wounded, while many were taken hostage. Several Israelis were believed to be among the hostages in the Chabad center as well as other locations targeted by the terrorists.
An Israeli hostage inside the Chabad center called the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi on Thursday afternoon and said that the terrorists had forced her to call and relay their demand - the release of several militants currently held in Indian jails.
Senior Foreign Ministry officials said earlier that there was serious concern for the lives of the Chabad center hostages, as the gunmen holed up at the center urged the Indian government to negotiate with them over the hostages' release.
The family of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivki, both reportedly held hostage at the Chabad center, said they knew nothing beyond reports that the couple's 2-year-old son had been rescued, but eight people in the building were unconscious. The cook at the Jewish center fled the building, holding Moishe Holtzberg in her arms.
One of the terrorists holed up at the Chabad headquarters phoned an Indian television channel to say he was prepared to free his hostages if the government agreed to talks.
"Ask the government to talk to us and we will release the hostages," the militant, identified by the India TV channel as Imran, said, speaking in Urdu in what sounded like a Kashmiri accent.
"Are you aware how many people have been killed in Kashmir? Are you aware how many of them have been killed in Kashmir this week?" he said.
Between 20 to 30 Israelis were also reported to be among the dozens of hostages held by gunmen at the Trident-Oberoi hotel in a separate siege in the city.
An Israeli official in India told Haaretz that commandos surrounding the city's Taj Mahal hotel, another target of the terrorists where hostages were being held, had opened fire.
Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said later Thursday "we know that there are Israelis, certainly in the Chabad center and very probably in the Trident hotel."
He went on to say that the Israeli Consulate-General in Mumbai did not have a confirmed number of Israeli hostages, but added that according to various reports, the number ranged from 10 to 14 Israelis.
"At the hotel we don't know. There could be a handful," he added.
He said the Israeli authorities also had no official confirmation that Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife were among the hostages, but added "it's very probable because he was inside the house and we don't know that he came out of the house."
Israel's national emergency service said Thursday it had dispatched a team of doctors and medics to Mumbai, adding that more aid was available if the Indian government should require it.
Meanwhile, Indian commandoes killed the last three gunmen at a landmark hotel late Thursday and were sweeping another luxury hotel in search of hostages and trapped victims.
Gunfire and explosions could be heard well into the night from the Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels, two of the city's top gathering spots for the Mumbai elite, as well as at the Chabad center. Throughout the day, commandoes brought hostages, trapped guests and corpses from the hotels in small groups.
The gunmen's main targets appeared to be Americans, Britons and Jews, though most of the dead seemed to be Indians and foreign tourists caught in random gunfire.
But clearly the gunmen - some of whom strode casually through their targets in khakis and T-shirts - 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 hotel, said they appeared to have scouted their targets in advance.
"They seem to know their way around the back office, the kitchen. There has been a considerable amount of detailed planning," he said at a press conference.
India has been shaken repeatedly by terror attacks blamed on Muslim militants in recent years, but most of those attacks have been coordinated bombings that struck random crowded places: markets, street corners, parks.
The Wednesday night attacks were far more sophisticated - and more brazen.
They began at about 9:20 p.m. with the 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.
Among the dead were at least one Australian, a Japanese and a British national, said Pradeep Indulkar, a senior government official of Maharashtra state. An Italian and a German were also killed, according to their foreign ministries.