Indian police officers look for clues at the site of an explosion in the Dadar… (Indranil Mukherjee / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from New Delhi — For the second time in three years, Mumbai suffered a major terrorist attack Wednesday as three explosions rocked India's financial capital, killing at least 21 people, wounding more than 140 and spreading fear and panic across the sprawling city.
The blasts, detonated over an 11-minute period beginning at 6:54 p.m. just as commuters were heading home or out for dinner, apparently were timed for maximum damage and publicity.
But several analysts said that the explosions' relatively low intensity, the choice of targets and the fact that more people weren't killed suggested that this was the work of local militants and not a major Pakistan-linked group, such as the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, which India blames for the 2008 attack on Mumbai that killed 166 people.
But unlike the attacks three years ago on international hotels and a Jewish center, targets that resonated around the world, Wednesday's blasts struck densely packed neighborhoods unfamiliar outside India.
One explosion took place in the crowded Dadar market area near a major railway station in central Mumbai, the second in the Zaveri Bazaar jewelry district and the third — the largest, officials said — in the Opera House neighborhood, one of the world's busiest diamond districts.
"This doesn't bear the signature of [Lashkar-e-Taiba], which would have involved much greater intensity and impact," said Rahul Bhonsle, a retired brigadier general and head of Security-Risks.com, a military analysis group. "This appears more like local groups that are not so proficient."
No one took immediate responsibility for the attack.
Mumbai was placed on high alert, and residents were told to avoid crowded places.
Palaniappan Chidambaram, India's home minister, said officials believed the blasts were "a coordinated attack by terrorists," even as he urged Mumbai residents and the nation to remain calm.
Local officials said all schools would be open Thursday and mass transit would continue to operate normally, although security would be stepped up.
In Washington, President Obama condemned the attacks.
"The American people will stand with the Indian people in times of trial," he said in a statement, "and we will offer support to India's efforts to bring the perpetrators of these terrible crimes to justice."
Indian authorities said all three blasts appeared to involve concealed explosives. It was suspected suspicion that the explosive device in Dadar was hidden in an electrical metering box above a bus stand and the one in Zaveri Bazaar was concealed under an umbrella.
Television video from the sites showed a dismembered body covered with dust and dozens of police officials, several with automatic weapons and bulletproof vests, struggling to restore order.
Pravin Gada, 38, who owns a shop in the Zaveri Bazaar area, said he was thinking of heading out for a bite when he heard a blast, rushed down the street and saw glass strewn across a nearby lane filled with eateries.
"I saw six or eight seriously injured people with blood all over them being lifted in floor mats by locals and taken to the hospital in taxis," Gada said. "The skin of some of the injured was completely gone."
Residents struggled to make sense of the tragedy.
"People who live in this city constantly face the threat of being blown up," said Bhisham Mansukhani, a businessman who was held hostage in the Taj Mahal Palace hotel during the 2008 attack. "It's intolerable."
Mansukhani said that after the U.S. suffered the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and Britain experienced the July 7, 2005, assault on its public transit system, their societies became more vigilant.
"Does someone living in Bombay after 2008 feel safer?" he said, referring to Mumbai by its previous name. "The answer is no. We're an inefficient, ineffectual, desensitized nation that feels people are expendable. We can be blown apart at any time."
Rahul Bose, a Bollywood actor and social activist, urged restraint.
"Now is not the time to lash out at imagined perpetrators," Bose said in a Twitter message. "Stick together, stay sane."
Despite such cautions, some suspicions focused on Pakistan-based militant groups. India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, have recently resumed talks — halted after the 2008 attack — on improving relations.
The Indian government came under sharp criticism after the 2008 attack for its lumbering response, poor tactics and inadequate equipment. It was quick to point out this time that elite National Security Guard officers in Mumbai were on standby and that investigators and forensic specialists were being rushed in from New Delhi.
But Bhonsle, the security analyst, said that judging from the television video it's unclear how much India has learned. Apparently, no perimeter was established at the blast sites, he said, allowing bystanders to traipse through the disaster area. Not only did this put people at risk had there been an additional, delayed blast, it also tainted the crime scene, making it more difficult for forensic teams to find clues.
"It's not professional," he said. "It's a sea of humanity."
Nor has much been done by authorities to address some of the causes of domestic terrorism, he said, including rich-poor inequities and the grievances of Muslim youths in Mumbai that may fuel groups such as the Indian Mujahedin.
"Enhanced awareness must start from the bottom up," he said. "But it's not happening."
Rana is a news assistant in The Times' New Delhi bureau.