- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2008


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — A massive truck bomb devastated the heavily guarded Marriott Hotel in Pakistan’s capital Saturday and engulfed the building in flames, killing at least 40 people and injuring at least 100.

The blast left a vast crater some 10 meters (30 feet) deep in front of the main building, where flames poured from the windows. Rescuers ferried a stream of bloodied bodies from the gutted structure, which was in danger of collapsing.

Police sought in vain to shoo away bystanders and reporters for fear of gas leaks that might trigger more blasts.

The Marriott is a favorite place for foreigners as well as Pakistani politicians and business people to stay and socialize, despite repeated militant attacks. It served as the de facto back office for the international media during the 2001 war against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

Leaders of Pakistan’s civilian government stated their determination to combat terrorism, though the country’s seven-year alliance with the United States has come under strain over U.S. threats to attack militants in the lawless tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

The attack came hours after new President Asif Ali Zardari addressed Parliament for the first time and underscored the fragility of his administration as the country finds its footing after a decade of military rule.

Though there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the government and army have been grappling with a resurgence of Islamic extremist militancy by the Pakistan Taliban. The movement is believed to be linked to insurgents in Afghanistan and to al-Qaida.

“This is terrorism and we have to fight it together as a nation,” Rehman Malik, the head of Pakistan’s Interior Ministry, told reporters at a hospital overflowing with the wounded.

Witnesses and officials said a large truck rammed the high metal gate of the hotel at about 8 p.m. (1400 GMT), when the restaurants would have been packed with diners, including Muslims breaking the Ramadan fast.

Senior police official Asghar Raza Gardaizi said rescuers had counted at least 40 bodies at the scene and he feared that there “dozens more dead inside.”

Associated Press reporters saw at least nine bodies scattered at the scene. Scores of people, including foreigners, were running out — some of them stained with blood.

Witnesses spoke of a smaller blast followed by a much larger one.

A U.S. State Department official using a section of white pipe as a walking stick led three colleagues through the rubble from the charred building, one of them bleeding heavily from a wound on the side of his head.

One of the four, who identified himself only as Tony, said they had begun moving toward the rear of the Chinese restaurant after the first blast when the second threw them against the back wall.

“Then we saw a big truck coming through the gates,” he said. “After that it was just smoke and darkness.”

Ambulances rushed to the area, picking their way through the charred carcasses of vehicles that had been in the street outside. Windows in buildings hundreds of meters away were shattered.

Mohammad Sultan, a hotel employee, said he was in the lobby when something exploded. He fell down and everything temporarily went dark.

“I didn’t understand what it was, but it was like the world is finished,” he said.

Pakistan has faced a wave of militant violence in recent weeks following army-led offensives against insurgents in its border regions. The capital has not been spared, though Saturday’s blast was one of the largest terrorist attacks in the country.

In July, a suicide bombing killed at least 18 people, most of them security forces, and wounded dozens in Islamabad as supporters of the Red Mosque gathered nearby to mark the anniversary of the military siege on the militant stronghold.

In June, a suicide car bomber killed at least six people near the Danish Embassy in Islamabad. A statement attributed to al-Qaida took responsibility for that blast, believed to have targeted Denmark over the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

In mid-March, a bomb explosion at an Italian restaurant killed a Turkish woman in the capital, and wounded 12 others, including four FBI officials.

Associated Press Writers Zarar Khan, Stephen Graham and Munir Ahmad in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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