Blast Kills Dozens in Pakistan

By Shaiq Hussain and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 21, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 20 -- A massive suicide truck bomb ripped through a luxury hotel in the Pakistani capital Saturday night, killing at least 60 people and wounding more than 250 as the building was engulfed in flames, officials said.

Witnesses and officials said the bomber drove up to one side of the heavily guarded hotel and detonated more than a ton of explosives, leaving a 30-foot-deep crater.

Television footage of the Islamabad Marriott Hotel, located just blocks from major government buildings, showed smoke billowing and flames leaping from windows as bloodied survivors staggered out of the lobby.

Police said that many people had been trapped inside and that the death toll would probably rise. Officials said some of the victims were foreigners, including at least one American. Marriott said in a statement that several hotel security guards who had gone out to examine the truck were among the dead.

The bombing, one of the deadliest attacks ever in Pakistan, occurred just hours after the new president of this nation of 160 million delivered his first speech to Parliament and vowed to free Pakistan from the "shackles of terrorism."

Asif Ali Zardari and his government face a rapidly growing threat from Islamist extremists, especially in the northwest border regions near Afghanistan. The Pakistani army has recently staged several major military operations in that area, and extremist groups have vowed to retaliate.

"This is terrorism, and we have to fight it together as a nation," Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters at a hospital where dozens of wounded hotel guests were taken. He said officials had been warned of the possibility of militant attacks timed to coincide with Zardari's address.

Analysts also said militant leaders wanted to send a warning to Zardari, who faces strong U.S. pressure to crack down on Islamist extremists but domestic criticism from those who see him as too willing to do Washington's bidding.

Pakistan and the United States are major allies in the war against terrorism, but in the past several weeks, tension has grown between them over the U.S. military's cross-border raids in pursuit of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

President Bush and Zardari are scheduled to meet next week during a U.N. session in New York.

At the time of the attack, Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani were attending a dinner at the premier's official residence several blocks away. One guest, lawmaker Saud Majid, said the diners heard a huge explosion and "felt the ground shaking under our feet." No one at the dinner was injured.

In a statement released by the government, Zardari and Gillani strongly condemned the bombing, expressed shock and grief over the loss of life and said the perpetrators would be brought to justice. They appealed to the public to remain calm.

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