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A rabbi and his wife held hostage by terrorists who struck in Mumbai this week are feared dead.
Conflicting reports following the takeover of Mumbai’s Chabad-Lubavitch house in the terrorist attacks in India, which left more than 120 dead, prompted confusion and anxiety surrounding the fate of the house’s occupants, including Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka Holtzberg.
As many as two dozen Israelis, some of whom are thought to have been in the house, remained unaccounted for late Thursday night.
Gunmen armed with automatic rifles and grenades struck 10 separate locations in Mumbai on Wednesday night in coordinated attacks at sites frequented by Westerners, including hotels, restaurants and a railway station. Witnesses said the gunmen — who killed more than 120 people, set buildings ablaze and took hostages — targeted Americans, Britons and Jews. Mumbai’s Chabad house was among the targets.
On Thursday afternoon, Indian commandos surrounded the Nariman House, where Chabad is located, with plans to storm in and release the hostages, according to reports. There reportedly were four terrorists holed up inside with six hostages. Indian special forces reportedly killed one terrorist in the building. Some sources said the rabbi and his wife were killed, but the reports could not be verified.
Earlier Thursday, the hostage takers released the Holtzberg’s 2-year-old son and the building’s cook, who said that the couple was alive but unconscious, according to media reports.
The Israeli consul in Mumbai told Israel Radio on Thursday that the consulate was working to locate approximately 25 Israelis known to be in Mumbai who had not contacted their families at home.
The terrorists also took hostages at the Taj Mahal Palace and Trident-Oberoi luxury hotels. The identity of the attackers is not known. A little-known organization calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen has claimed responsibility.
One terrorist inside the Chabad house called an Indian TV channel Thursday afternoon and offered to enter into talks with the government to release the hostages, Reuters reported.
The Chabad house is located at 5 Hormusji Street in Mumbai. India is a popular destination for young Israeli backpackers, who often make the trip after their army service. The Holtzbergs moved to Mumbai from Brooklyn, New York in 2003 to do Jewish outreach work in India.
One Indian TV channel said five or six Israelis were also among the 100 to 200 hostages being held at the Oberoi hotel, Ynet reported. Some 10 to 15 Israelis are said to be held hostage in sites throughout the city, the Israeli Foreign Ministry told Ynet.
Concern about the fate of the Chabad rabbi and his wife mounted throughout the day, with the Brooklyn-based organization issuing calls for prayer to Jews the world over. The National Council of Young Israel also sent out an alert asking Jews to pray for the rabbi and his wife.
“One friend of Gavriel Holtzberg reported receiving an e-mail from the Mumbai rabbi at 11:30 p.m. local time,” Chabad.org reported. “The Israeli Consulate was in touch with Holtzberg, but the line was cut in middle of the conversation. No further contact has since been established.”
On Thursday morning, according to the Jerusalem Post, the Chabad rabbi’s toddler son was rushed from the house in the arms of one of the Jewish center’s employees, Sandra Samuel.
“I took the child, I just grabbed the baby and ran out,” said Samuel, 44, who was identified as a cook.
She said that the rabbi, his wife and two other unidentified guests were alive but unconscious, the Jerusalem Post reported.