By Shaiq Hussain and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 22, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 21 -- Pakistani officials said Sunday that 21 foreigners, including two Americans stationed at the U.S. Embassy, were among the victims of a massive suicide truck bombing Saturday night that destroyed a luxury Marriott hotel in the capital.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said the bomber's intended target was Gillani's official residence a block from the hotel, where newly elected President Asif Ali Zardari and other officials were gathered to break their daily Ramadan fast when the bomb exploded about 8 p.m.
"The purpose was to destabilize democracy," Gillani said.
As rescue teams combed the still-smoldering five-story building, officials put the death toll at 53, with an unknown number of people unaccounted for. At least 266 people were injured. Most of the victims were hotel workers.
A spokesman for the Pentagon in Washington said Sunday that the two Americans killed in the blast were members of the U.S. defense forces assigned to the U.S. Embassy here. Their names were not released.
Pakistani officials said a contingent of 30 U.S. Marines was thought to be staying in the 290-room hotel.
A senior government security adviser, Rehman Malik, pointed the finger at Islamist militant groups based in South Waziristan, a volatile tribal area near the border with Afghanistan. These groups have vowed to retaliate against the government for stepped-up military raids and for a series of U.S. military incursions in pursuit of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
"All roads lead to South Waziristan and Tehrik-e-Taliban," Malik said, referring to a militant group headed by Baitullah Mehsud, who has repeatedly vowed to attack the government after a truce with his forces collapsed last year.
Malik showed journalists a dramatic video of the attack, in which a large dump truck rammed into a metal barrier near the hotel and caught fire. The video showed guards scattering, trying to put out the blaze, and scattering again when the driver kept going, detonating the huge blast.
Marriott said in a statement Saturday that several hotel guards who had gone out to examine the truck were among the dead.
The truck had been packed with 1,300 pounds of military explosives, mortars and other weapons, Malik said. The bombing was timed to coincide with the fast-breaking meal, when guards were eating and likely to be distracted.
Malik said the attack was intended to destroy the hotel, a center of social and political life in the Pakistani capital and a frequent choice of foreign visitors. The ambassador from the Czech Republic was among the dead, officials said.
Security and political analysts in Pakistan said the carefully planned bombing, the worst terror attack in the capital, could force the government to prove it is serious about combating terrorism or admit defeat.
"If they don't rise to this challenge, they are finished," said Talat Masood, a retired army general and defense analyst here. "I am not sure they have the capacity to take on such determined militants. To those who call this America's war, the government must make absolutely clear that this is Pakistan's war and how it plans to meet the challenge."
Zardari left Pakistan on Sunday for the United States, where he will address the United Nations and meet with President Bush. Several hours before the bombing, Zardari gave his first speech to Parliament, calling terrorism a disease and saying the government sought to free the country from its grip.
The United States and Pakistan have collaborated closely in the war against terrorism. But their relations have soured in recent weeks after a series of U.S. military operations in Pakistan's northwest tribal areas, including airstrikes and a commando raid, that have aroused protests from the public and the military.
"This attack is a payback to the new Pakistani government for its alliance with the U.S.," said Rifaat Hussain, a defense expert at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. "It is a direct challenge to the writ of the state, a message that they have lethal reach and can strike any target of their choosing."
Malik said the government had refused an offer from the FBI to help investigate the bombing, adding that Pakistani agencies were capable of doing the job alone.
Although Malik appeared to blame Mehsud's local Taliban movement, which seeks to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law in the tribal region, other Pakistani officials said "foreign" fighters were to blame, suggesting an al-Qaeda connection.
Gillani, speaking in the city of Lahore on Sunday, said that "tribals are patriotic" and that the terrorist threat to Pakistan comes from "a few foreign people." Pakistani officials and journalists have reported that Chechens, Uzbeks and other foreigners are among those fighting against government forces.
Constable reported from Kabul.