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Obama salutes Mumbai, Gandhi as he begins India journey

Saturday November 06, 2010 07:03:09 PM, Quaid Najmi and Mauli Buch, IANS

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Mumbai: US President Barack Obama Saturday pledged to deepen counter-terror cooperation with India as he flew into the country at the start of a four-nation Asian tour, saluting Mumbai for its resilience and Mahatma Gandhi for rewriting history.

Standing in the very Taj Mahal hotel where Pakistani terrorists went on a killing spree two Novembers ago, with the historic Gateway of India monument in the backdrop, Obama paid homage to those who died in the 2008 terrorist savagery popularly referred to as 26/11.

The dead included six Americans - which Obama underlined. But walking a tight diplomatic rope, Obama refrained from naming or alluding to Pakistan, a US ally New Delhi blames for the Mumbai terror attack.

"Those who attacked Mumbai wanted to demoralize this city and this country but they failed," he said. "The very next day Mumbaikars came back to work... Within weeks, this hotel was welcoming guests from around the world."

All the while, Michelle, clad in a grey dress and sporting a string of pearls around her neck, stood gracefuly by his side.

In a memorial book, Obama wrote: "We will always remember the events of 26/11; not only the sorrow, but also the courage and humanity displayed that day. The US stands in solidarity with all of Mumbai and all of India in working to eradicate the scourge of terrorism, and we affirm our lasting friendship with the Indian people."

Within an hour of getting off from the US Air Force One after landing at 12.48 p.m., Obama and Michelle reached the Taj hotel, one of the main targets of the terrorists. From the airport, they first boarded a Marine helicopter and then took the Cadillac.

The Obamas are staying at the hotel as a sign of solidarity. They placed a white rose at the memorial to the victims of the Mumbai carnage -- a stone wall carved with the names of the dead and a tree sculpture.

Speaking with the Gateway of India and the Arabian Sea in the backdrop, the president said he would "never forget the awful images of 26/11" as the heavily armed terrorists went on a killing spree in Mumbai for three long days.

"Taj has been a symbol of strength and resolve. Mumbai has been a symbol of incredible energy and optimism," Obama said, addressing select families of the Mummbai terror attack, some survivors and hotel employees.

"I look forward to deepening counter-terror cooperation when I meet Prime Minister Singh," he said. "The US and India are working more closely together than ever to keep our nations safe."

From the Taj, Obama reached Mani Bhavan, where his "hero" Mahatma Gandhi used to stay and which is now a museum, to pay tribute to the apostle of non-violence who has wielded enormous influence on African Americans.

Obama and Michelle walked through the rooms filled with books, pictures and other memorabilia of Gandhi. The sense of history was palpable as they flipped through the bulky visitors' book.

After the 30-minute tour, a visibly moved president wrote: "I am filled with hope and inspiration as I have the privilege to view this testament to Gandhi's life. He is a hero not just to India but to the world."

Michelle wrote: "This visit will be one I will always treasure."

With great interest, Obama read the remarks written by American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, another hero of his and who visited Mani Bhavan in 1959.

The US president's maiden visit to India, coming days after the Democrats suffered stunning reverses in the American mid-term polls, focuses largely on Washington's hunt for markets and jobs.

Top American firms feel the visit will help improve market access for their goods and also go a long way in creating jobs back home - which tops the Obama administration's agenda.

Three out of six engagements on Day One of the Obama visit were business-oriented, underscoring the importance his administration attaches to bilateral economic ties.

Ahead of his visit, Obama said in an article in the New York Times that the US would explore ways to reduce barriers to its exports and increase access to the Indian market to find new customers for American goods.

Obama will reach New Delhi Sunday and leave for Indonesia Tuesday after two event-packed days in the Indian capital, including meetings with Indian leaders on subjects ranging from economy to the war on terror in Afghanistan. He will also visit South Korea and Japan.








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