Was Pakistan prime minister's house bomber's target?

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 20, 2008 

MINGORA, Pakistan — A massive suicide truck bomb Saturday devastated the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, killing at least 40 people and wounding hundreds of others in what was believed to be the bloodiest terrorist strike ever in the Pakistani capital.

The bodies of doormen and security guards, stripped naked by the force of the blast, lay outside the flame-blacked hotel. Dozens of guests and staff were feared trapped inside amid worries that the five-story structure could collapse.

The attack on the hotel, which is favored by foreigners and the Pakistani elite despite being previously targeted by extremists, came as diners packed the restaurants to break the day-long fast of the Muslim month of Ramadan with the traditional Iftar evening meal.

Suspicions immediately focused on Islamic insurgents allied with al Qaida.

Only hours earlier, recently elected President Asif Ali Zadari, the husband of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, urged in his first address to Parliament a continued crackdown on the al Qaida-allied Islamic insurgency based in the country's tribal area bordering Afghanistan.

There were suggestions that the bomber's original target may have been the nearby home of Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani, where Zardari and many members of Parliament, top officials and military commanders were having an Iftar meal.

But finding security there too tight, the truck headed for the Marriott a few hundred yards away.

At least 40 people were killed and more than 200 injured in the hotel attack, authorities said. President Bush said at least one American was among the dead. Foreigners were also believed to be among the wounded.

The blast gouged a crater 70-feet wide and 30-feet deep and ripped open the front of the 258-room building, igniting a fire that burned its way through the structure, engulfing it in smoke. A gas leak apparently lent intensity to the flames.

Police estimated that 1,000 kilograms of explosive were used in the 8 p.m. attack, believed to have been the worst ever to strike Islamabad. The blast was heard miles away.

According to witnesses, a man in a car at the entrance to the hotel shouted a warning for people to run for their lives. A horn sounded. Moments later, a dumpster truck crashed through the hotel's front gate and exploded.

Guests and staff, their heads and clothes covered in blood, staggered out of the rubble-strune entrance.

The explosion turned cars around the building into twisted hulks, knocked over trees and blew out the windows of nearby homes and offices.

Passersby rushed to help carry the dead and wounded and rush them to hospitals in ambulances and private cars. Guests were seen at some upper floor windows as flames worked their way up the building.

An emergency was declared at Islamabad hospitals and authorities appealed for blood donations.

"They (Islamic extremists) want to take this country hostage and show they are stronger than the government," said Talat Masood, a retired general-turned-political analyst. "The message is: if you stay allied with the Americans, you have to deal with us."

Army troops deployed around the building and worked feverishly to locate victims trapped in the wrecked interior.

Located in a neighborhood of upscale homes and government offices near the Parliament building and presidency, the Marriott is the center of high society in Islamabad, and therefore represents a "high value target."

The front is protected by a wall, barriers and security guards. But the gates are only a few yards from the building's entrance, providing little protection from the massive explosion.

"The damage to the property doesn't matter, it's the loss of life," said the hotel's owner, Sadruddin Hashwani, one of Pakistan's richest men, as he stood outside the wreckage of the crown jewel of his business empire. "Those who died are poor people, guards and chauffeurs. They all have children at home."

The hotel has been targeted at least three times in recent years by terrorist attacks, the last occuring in January 2007. A suicide bomber detonated his explosives after being stopped outside the building by a security guard. The pair was killed and at least seven people were wounded.

Still, the hotel is only one of two places in the city considered safe enough for foreign diplomats to dine. With its stylish rooms, health club, pool and a variety of restaurants, foreigners tend to stay there or in the Serena Hotel, which is located behind massive walls next to the heavily guarded diplomatic enclave.

Islamabad has been hit by three previous bombings this year that claimed at 25 lives.

In Washington, Bush issued a statement condemned the bombing and extended condolences to the families of the victims.

"This attack is a reminder of the ongoing threat faced by Pakistan, the United States, and all those who stand against violent extremism," Bush said. "We will assist Pakistan in confronting this threat and bringing the perpetrators to justice."

Bush is due to meet Zardari on Tuesday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, with the Islamic insurgency and cross-border U.S. air strikes, which have inflamed Pakistani nationalists, expected to top the agenda.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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