U.S. President Barack Obama said his visit to a memorial for the victims of the 2008 attacks on India’s largest city was “to send a very clear message” that the two countries are united in defending their people from terrorism.
At his first stop in a three-day visit to India, Obama and his wife Michelle met with survivors of the 60-hour raid on Mumbai and signed a book of commemoration at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel, where gunmen killed 31 guests and staff and set rooms ablaze.
“We will never forget how the world, including the American people, watched and grieved with all of India,” Obama said. “We visit here to send a very clear message that in our determination to give our people a future of security and prosperity the U.S and India stand united.”
The hotel’s heritage wing, favored by royalty, rock stars and tycoons, opened for business in August this year after a $37 million restoration. Renamed the Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai, the wing was ravaged as Pakistani militants armed with automatic rifles and grenades stormed the 107-year-old building, taking hostages and burning rooms that once accommodated Mick Jagger, Jacqueline Onassis, Yehudi Menuhin and Prince Charles.
The hotel has boosted security and added luxury suites by joining rooms. The Taj Group added x-ray machines and metal detectors to screen guests, while newly installed barriers prevent vehicles from pulling up to the entrance.
The Nov. 26-29, 2008 attacks in India’s financial capital killed 166 people, including six Americans. Among other targets were the Oberoi Trident Hotel, a railway station, a Jewish center and a cafe popular with tourists and locals. The raid shattered peace talks between India and its traditional rival Pakistan that are yet to fully recover.
A court in May sentenced to death Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, the only one of 10 guerrillas who arrived in Mumbai aboard a dinghy before embarking on a 60-hour rampage to be caught. He has since appealed the sentence.
In a shift in strategy for groups attacking India, Kasab and his accomplices targeted businessmen and tourists, a strike at the international links that have helped India’s economy quadruple in size since it opened to foreign investment in the early 1990s.
India’s government says that the Pakistan-based militant group Laskhar-e-Taiba, whose name means “Army of the Pure” and that was formed to fight Indian rule in the divided Himalayan territory of Kashmir, ordered the attack. It broke off peace talks with the government in Islamabad.
While the nuclear-armed neighbors have agreed to rebuild ties and their leaders have met at regional summits and for bilateral talks, India says that a full return to broad-based negotiations is dependent on Pakistan closing down anti-India militant groups based on its soil.
David Coleman Headley, a man of mixed Pakistani and U.S. parentage, pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to helping plot the Mumbai attack, and was later questioned by Indian investigators.
The London-based Guardian newspaper last month said Headley’s testimony to Indian officials detailed the relationship between the gunmen and Pakistan’s main military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. Pakistan denies it had any role in the raid.
The attack on Mumbai “grew out of pressure on commanders of Lashkar-e-Taiba to wage a wider war against the West,” the Guardian reported, citing an Indian report based on 34 hours of questioning of Headley.
The Taj has been a landmark of Indian freedom since before the last garrison of British troops lined up in front of the hotel prior to leaving the country after independence in 1947. Jamsetji Tata is said to have built the Taj Mahal after being refused entry to one of the city’s best hotels, Watson’s, which only allowed whites, the Times of India said in a 2005 article.
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