The New York Times
September 21, 2008
Bomb Explodes at Hotel in Pakistan’s Capital, Killing at Least 40
By CARLOTTA GALL
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A huge truck bomb exploded at the entrance to the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on Saturday evening, killing at least 40 people and wounding at least 250, the police said.
The blast, one of the worst acts of terrorism in Pakistan’s history, went off just a few hundred yards from the prime minister’s house, where all the leaders of government were dining after the president’s address to Parliament.
The toll was expected to grow because of reports that people had been trapped inside the six-story hotel, which has been a favorite meeting spot of both foreigners and well-connected Pakistanis in the heart of the capital. The building was quickly engulfed in flames and continued to burn for hours Saturday night.
The bomb left a vast crater, 40 feet wide and 25 feet deep, at the security barrier to the hotel. Witnesses said security guards were buried under a mound of rubble. Cars across the street from the hotel were mangled, and trees on the street were charred and stripped of their branches. The blast shattered windows in buildings hundreds of yards away.
Witnesses said they dragged dozens of bodies from the lobby of the hotel and an adjacent parking lot, including those of a number of foreigners. Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the State Department, issued a statement saying at least one American citizen was killed and several others were injured.
An American Embassy spokesman, Lou Fintor, could not confirm if any American citizens were killed or wounded. “We are in the process of determining the status and welfare of our embassy staff as well as any other Americans who may have been affected, and we are in close contact with the State Department in Washington,” he said.
The bombing was the deadliest to take place in the well-guarded capital and may have been timed for the day that President Asif Ali Zardari made his first address to Parliament since his election two weeks ago. Mr. Zardari, whose wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in December by a suicide bomber, vowed in his speech to root out extremism and to stop terrorists from using Pakistani soil to attack other countries.
Both he and the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, condemned the attack and repeated their determination to deal with terrorism with an iron hand, the state news agency, The Associated Press of Pakistan, reported.
On national television late Sunday, Mr. Zardari said most of the victims had been security guards at the entrance to the hotel. “These are not the acts of a Muslim,” he said. “We will get rid of this terrorism cancer.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But Pakistani analysts said the bombing may have been in retaliation for recent army operations that have reportedly killed scores of militants in the tribal area of Bajaur, near the border with Afghanistan, and the adjacent area of Swat.
An American intelligence official said the attack “bears all the hallmarks of a terrorist operation carried out by Al Qaeda or its associates.”
The tribal areas have become a safe haven for insurgents linked to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, whose attacks on targets in Pakistan have become increasingly frequent and lethal. Coming after a bombing this year at another gathering spot for foreigners, the Serena Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, the Marriott attack seemed intended to send a message to Washington and other allies of Pakistan.
Despite the tough talk by the president and prime minister, it was unclear what kind of response the government would mount. Pakistan has been in a state of political turmoil for months, and from the American perspective at least, the new civilian government has so far shown little interest in pursuing a campaign against the militants.
President Bush denounced the attack on Saturday. “I strongly condemn the terrorist bombing in Islamabad that targeted and killed many innocents,” he said.
The Islamabad Marriott has been attacked by militants at least twice in the past, including in a suicide attack in January 2007 that killed a policeman. A senior police official, Ashfaq Ahmed Khan, said initial reports suggested that an explosives-laden dump truck had been detonated near the entrance.
“The Marriott is an icon,” said Abdullah Riar, a former aide to Mrs. Bhutto. “It’s like the twin towers of Pakistan. It’s a symbolic place in the capital of the country, and now it has melted down.”
One wounded American who works at the embassy here said he was unlocking his car when the bomb exploded. The American, who gave only his first name, Chris, had injuries to his face, neck and shoulder, and was holding a bloody T-shirt to his face.
American Embassy personnel members at the scene said they had come to help American citizens caught in the blast.
Amjad Ali Khan, a guard on duty at a side entrance to the hotel, said that he had seen four to five bodies in the hotel parking lot and that he helped carry out 40 bodies from inside the hotel. He said they had been “in the lobby and in the restaurant and everywhere.”
“There were very few people injured,” he said. “They were all dead.”
When asked who he thought was responsible for the blast, he responded, “They are terrorists.”
The Interior Ministry had warned several days ago that it had information that four or five suicide bombers had been dispatched on missions around the country. The government enforced tight security during the president’s 3 p.m. address, posting Army Rangers and police officers in rings around the Parliament and government buildings.
The Marriott is nearby, but security may have been reduced after the speech and ahead of the evening meal, when Muslims break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan. The bomb exploded at 8 p.m., when many Pakistanis were inside the banquet hall at the back of the hotel.
Asmatullah Marvat, a paramedic for the Capital Development Authority, said rescue workers had taken 70 to 80 people to different hospitals in the city.
Hotel workers said that they had heard a loud explosion and that the east wing of the hotel was on fire. “I was inside the Marquee Hall,” said a man who identified himself as Kaleem. “It was iftar time. All of a sudden there was a massive explosion. The roofs collapsed, and we ran out the back.”
The Islamabad police asked the army to assist in the rescue work.
The F.B.I. offered to send special agents to help investigate, said a senior American official, who declined to be identified because of the nature of the matter. The F.B.I. is awaiting approval from the Pakistani government, the official said.
Reporting was contributed by Salman Masood from Islamabad, Jane Perlez from London and Eric Schmitt from Washington.
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