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.
Bush condemned the attack, calling it "part of a continuing assault on the people of Pakistan."
"We will assist Pakistan in confronting this threat and bringing the perpetrators to justice," he said. "We will fully support the democratically elected government of Pakistan and the Pakistani people as they face enormous challenges economically as well as from terrorism."
Witnesses and residents of the modern, heavily policed capital said they heard the explosion several miles away. The bomber detonated his explosives-laden truck during iftar, the evening fast-breaking ritual during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The building continued burning into the night, and officials said the hotel might collapse.
The Marriott, which is near the Parliament, the presidential offices, the Supreme Court and other major institutions, is a center of the capital's social and political scene and a favorite of foreign business visitors, journalists and diplomats.
Security at the hotel is always heavy, with all vehicles searched outside the entrance. The hotel has been attacked twice before. In January 2007, a suicide bomber triggered a blast nearby, killing a security guard and wounding seven.
Islamabad has been hit by a wave of attacks in recent months. In March, a woman was killed in a bombing at an Italian restaurant popular with foreigners. In June, a suicide bomber attacked the Danish Embassy, killing six people. In July, 18 people were killed in a suicide bombing on the anniversary of a government-led raid on a radical mosque.
Television footage Saturday night showed the Marriott's spacious lobby, known for its 24-hour buffet, society weddings and constant political meetings, as a charred ruin. Dozens of vehicles in the parking lot had been rendered twisted hulks of metal.
Constable reported from Kabul.