- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2008

UPDATED:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) - Taliban militants based near the Afghan border and their al Qaeda allies are the most likely suspects behind a massive truck bombing at the Marriott Hotel, officials and experts said Sunday. At least 53 died in the explosion, including two U.S. Defense Department employees and the Czech ambassador.

More than 260 people were wounded in the explosion Saturday, close to 8 p.m. The damaged hotel, still smoldering 24 hours after the blast, has been targeted twice before by militant bombings.

While no group has claimed responsibility, the scale of the blast and its high-profile target were seen by many as the signature of media-savvy al Qaeda. Analysts said the attack served as a warning from Islamic militants to Pakistan’s new civilian leadership to stop cooperating with the U.S.-led war on terror.

The blast occurred at time of growing anger in the Muslim nation over a wave of cross-border strikes on militant bases in Pakistan by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the attack was an attempt to “destabilize democracy” in Pakistan, which this year emerged from nine years of military rule, and destroy its already fragile economy.

The bombing also came just hours after President Asif Zardari made his first address to Parliament since becoming president, less than a mile away from the hotel.

The government released footage from a hotel surveillance camera showing the heavy truck turning left into the gate at speed, ramming a metal barrier and coming to a halt about 60 feet away from the hotel.

The truck sat burning and disabled at the hotel gate for at least 3 1/2 minutes as nervous guards tried to douse the small flames before they, the truck and much of the hotel forecourt vanished in a fearsome fireball, according to the footage played.

There was no sign of movement in the truck and the footage played didn’t show the final blast.

The owner of the hotel accused security forces of a serious lapse in allowing a dump truck to approach the hotel unchallenged and not shooting the driver before he could trigger the explosives.

“If I were there and had seen the suicide bomber, I would have killed him. Unfortunately, they didn’t,” Sadruddin Hashwani said.

Officials said vehicles carrying construction materials are allowed to move after sunset, meaning the sight of a dump truck near the government quarters might not have aroused suspicion.

Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said “all roads lead to FATA” in major Pakistani suicide attacks - referring to Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where U.S. officials worry that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri are hiding.

Mahmood Shah, a former government security chief for Pakistan’s tribal areas, said that while the attack had “all the signatures” of an al Qaeda strike, homegrown Taliban militants probably had learned how to execute an attack of such magnitude.

Al Qaeda was providing “money, motivation, direction and all sort of leadership and using the Taliban as gun fodder,” he suggested.

A Pakistani intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the record to media, said investigators were examining just that theory.

Anti-American feeling is running particularly high following a series of strikes by U.S. forces based in Afghanistan on Islamic militants nested in Pakistan’s tribal belt.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said there was no evidence that Americans were the primary target.

Still, he confirmed that two DoD employees were among the dead and that a third American - a State Department contractor - was missing.

Three U.S. embassy employees and an embassy contractor were injured, Mr. Fintor said.

IntelCenter, a group which monitors and analyzes extremist communications, said senior al Qaeda leader Mustafa Abu al-Yazid threatened attacks against Western interests in Pakistan in a video timed to the recent anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

Mr. Malik declined a reported offer of U.S. assistance in the investigation, saying Pakistani agencies could cope.

Rescue teams searched the blackened hotel room by room Sunday, finding several more bodies, and Mr. Gilani said the death toll had risen to 53. A Danish diplomat was also listed as missing and rescue workers said they expected to find more human remains.

Officials confirmed that Czech Ambassador Ivo Zdarek was also among the dead. Mr. Zdarek, 47, only moved to Islamabad in August after four years as ambassador to Vietnam.

Mr. Malik said one Vietnamese citizen was also killed. The wounded also included Britons, Germans, and several people from the Middle East.

Mr. Malik said at a news conference that the bomb contained an estimated 1,300 pounds of military-grade explosives as well as artillery and mortar shells and left a crater 60 feet wide and 24 feet deep in front of the main building.

A recent series of suspected U.S. missile strikes and a rare American ground assault in Pakistan’s northwest have signaled Washington’s impatience with Pakistan’s efforts to clear out militants. But the cross-border operations have drawn protests from the Pakistani government, which warned they would fan militancy.

The Marriott blast could prompt diplomats and aid groups in Islamabad to re-evaluate whether nonessential staff and family members should stay. U.N. officials met Sunday to discuss the security situation and, for now, made no decision to change their measures, said Amena Kamaal, a spokeswoman.

Mr. Zardari, who on Sunday was headed to New York to lead a delegation to the United Nations and was expected to meet with President George W. Bush during the week, spoke out against the cross-border strikes in his speech to Parliament. He condemned the “cowardly attack” afterward in an address to the nation.

Pakistan’s powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, joined the condemnation Sunday, calling the attack “heinous” and saying the army stands “with the nation in its resolve to defeat the forces of extremism and terrorism.”

The army has staged offensives against insurgents in the nation’s northwest that have drawn revenge attacks by Taliban militants.

The country’s deadliest suicide bombing was on Oct. 18, 2007, and targeted ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto - Zardari’s wife - who survived. It killed about 150 people in Karachi during celebrations welcoming her home from exile.

Mrs. Bhutto was assassinated in a subsequent attack on Dec. 27, 2007.

The last big attack in Islamabad was a suicide car bombing in June outside the Danish Embassy that killed six people in apparent revenge for the publication in Denmark of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Al Qaeda took responsibility.

Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad, Nahal Toosi, Zarar Khan and Asif Shahzad contributed to this report.

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