Bombing underscores security problems U.S. faces in Pakistan

McClatchy NewspapersJune 10, 2009 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The suspected Taliban bombing of a hotel in Peshawar that the United States was planning to purchase for a new consulate raises questions about the Obama administration's ability to implement its strategy for helping Pakistan end the country's al Qaida-backed insurgency, U.S. officials and experts said Wednesday.

The attack Tuesday night — which claimed at least 16 lives, including two U.N. international staffers, and wounded around 70 others — underscored the insurgents' ability to operate almost at will in Pakistan's key cities despite tight security.

It also highlighted the difficulty of providing sufficient security for a planned increase in American civilian officials, who're being sent to Pakistan to oversee a massive expansion in U.S. aid projects.

McClatchy reported last month that the State Department was close to completing a multimillion-dollar deal to purchase the 150-room hotel and transform it into a new U.S. consulate and housing complex for American officials working in the dangerous city.

It was unclear whether the bombing, which extensively damaged the hotel, would scuttle the negotiations.

"Even if they get the people up there (to Peshawar), they are going to be living in a fortified compound," a State Department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue publicly. "It's a real tough situation."

The Taliban Movement of Pakistan, a loose amalgam of radical groups allied with al Qaida, has stepped up a two-year campaign of violence in retaliation for an offensive the army launched in May to wrest the Swat Valley and surrounding areas of the North West Frontier Province back from militant gunmen.

Peshawar, the provincial capital, has been hit the hardest, reeling from bombings and other attacks that have targeted civilians and security forces.

The United Nations on Wednesday pulled out most of its international staff from the city, a base for overseeing relief operations for around 2 million desperate people displaced by the fighting in Swat, raising the risk that the aid effort could be hobbled.

"We are reviewing our security arrangements. Clearly, we need to tighten our security," said Hiro Ueki, a U.N. spokesman in Islamabad. "We're hoping that conditions will soon allow us to deploy our international staff again."

The U.N. World Food Program also suspended the distribution of food to the refugees for 24 hours.

Two U.N. officials, a Serb and a Filipina, died in Tuesday's attack, and two others, a Briton and a German, were injured. The four were among more than 20 U.N. staff members who were staying at the Pearl Continental, the only luxury hotel in the gritty city, home to a major military headquarters and numerous security force facilities.

Three Pakistanis who were working as drivers or clerical staff for the United Nations were killed.

Murtaza Hashwani, the hotel owner and one of Pakistan's richest businessmen, vowed to rebuild the Pearl Continental within two months.

One side of the hotel collapsed under the force of the blast. The family also owns the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, which was devastated by a bombing last year but reopened in three months.

"It's the same thing (as rebuilding the Marriott), but hopefully we'll do it in two months, that's our aim, said Hashwani, the chief executive of the Hashoo Group. "In the Marriott, the structure was fine but the rooms were gutted. Here, the structure is part demolished."

Hashwani, who declined to comment on the sale, accused the government of providing lax security, contending that, "We can only protect inside our boundaries. If something is moving around on the streets, who's checking that?"

However, closed-circuit video footage showed the small truck that contained the bomb entering the hotel compound with apparent ease after gunmen opened fire on guards.

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, asserted in Washington that the attack would further enrage ordinary people about the Taliban "provided the government gives the security necessary."

He added, however, that he'd found during a visit last week "a new determination in Islamabad" to confront the insurgency.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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