- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – Pakistan’s top leaders were to dine at the Marriott hotel that was devastated by a truck bombing over the weekend, but changed the venue at the last minute, a senior government official said Monday.

The blast in the capital Islamabad killed at least 53 people and underscored the extremist challenge facing nuclear-armed Pakistan. Two intelligence officials said Pakistani troops and tribesmen opened fire on two U.S. helicopters after they crossed from Afghanistan into the northwest tribal region, where Taliban and al-Qaida militants are operating.

In a further sign of the country’s deteriorating security situation Monday, gunmen kidnapped Afghanistan’s ambassador-designate and killed his driver in the main northwestern city of Peshawar, said a spokesman for the mission in the city.

Abdul Khaliq Farahi was abducted as he traveled toward his home in the city, said the spokesman, Mohammed Zahir Babri. He gave no more details, but the kidnapping and killing was also confirmed by the Afghan charge d’affairs in Islamabad, Majnoon Gulab.

Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik did not specify why the prime minister and president decided to move the dinner from the Marriott to the premier’s house but said the decision was kept secret.

“Perhaps the terrorists knew that the Marriott was the venue of the dinner for all the leadership where the president, prime minister, speaker and all entire leadership would be present,” he told reporters. “At the eleventh hour, the president and prime minister decided that the venue would be the prime minister’s house. It saved the entire leadership.”

Some 270 people were wounded in the attack, while the dead included the Czech ambassador and two U.S. Department of Defense employees.

Most of the victims were Pakistanis, a fact likely to increase pressure on the government to stem the rising violence in the Muslim nation that many blame on the country’s partnership with the U.S. in the war on terror.

Suspicion has fallen on al-Qaida or the Pakistani Taliban in the blast.

But Amir Mohammad, an aide to one prominent Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, said the militant group was not involved and shared the nation’s grief. Mehshud was blamed by the last government for a suicide attack that killed Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s wife, the pro-U.S. politician Benazir Bhutto. He denies that charge too.

“We have our own targets and we execute our plans precisely with minimal loss of irrelevant or innocent people,” Mehsud was quoted as saying by his spokesman. “We have nothing to do with the Marriott hotel attack.”

The government is under U.S. pressure to crack down on the militants, who are also blamed for staging rising attacks on coalition forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

The officials who described Monday’s helicopter incursion into the border region spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. They said informants in the field told them it took place about one mile inside the disputed and poorly demarcated border in the Alwara Mandi area in North Waziristan.

The helicopters did not return fire and re-entered Afghan airspace without landing, the officials said.

Pakistan’s army and the U.S. military in Afghanistan said they had no information on the reported incursion.

A week ago, U.S. helicopters reportedly landed near Angoor Ada, a border village in South Waziristan, but returned toward Afghanistan after troops fired warning shots.

The alleged incident will likely add to tensions between Islamabad and Washington and comes as Zardari heads to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly.

Although no one has claimed responsibility for Saturday’s hotel bombing, officials and experts said the scale of the blast and its high-profile target were hallmarks of Al-Qaida and its Taliban allies.

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

Senior al-Qaida leader Mustafa Abu al-Yazid threatened attacks against Western interests in Pakistan in a video timed with the recent anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

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

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

The blast prompted foreign diplomatic missions and aid groups in Pakistan to review their security status. British Airways said Monday it was temporarily suspending its flights to the country as a precautionary measure.

The airline, which offered six flights to Pakistan each week, did not face a direct security threat, company spokesman Suhail Rehman said.

Dramatic surveillance footage released Sunday showed how the explosive-laden truck sat burning and disabled at the hotel gate for at least 3 1/2 minutes as nervous guards tried to douse the flames before they, the truck and much of the hotel forecourt vanished in a fearsome fireball.

Associated Press writers Zarar Khan and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan contributed to this report.

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