September 21, 2008 in Nation/World

Scores die in bombing at Pakistan luxury hotel

By Henry Chu and Mubashir Zaidi Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

Family members grieve over the body of an explosion victim Saturday at a hospital in Islamabad.
(Full-size photo)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – With dozens still believed trapped inside, authorities continued to search early today for victims of a massive suicide bombing attack on a five-star hotel frequented by foreign diplomats and Pakistani elite.

At least 40 people were killed and 250 wounded when a truck full of explosives rammed into the gates of the Marriott Hotel. The thunderous blast in the heart of the nation’s capital reverberated for miles, carved out a crater 30 feet deep and set off a fire that continued to burn into the early hours of today.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which hit hours after Pakistan’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari, delivered his first speech to lawmakers. Islamic militants have vowed to destabilize Zardari’s government, which is faced with deepening economic gloom and growing public anger over Pakistan’s alliance with the United States, especially American military operations against the Taliban and other Islamic extremists that have crossed over the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan.

Western anti-terror officials were eager to see whether responsibility for the attack would be claimed by the core leadership of al-Qaida or one of an array of radical fundamentalist groups operating in the largely lawless regions of Pakistan near the Afghanistan border.

Fundamentalist groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, appear to be stepping up their coordination to attack the Pakistan government to retaliate against efforts to combat extremism in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, officials said

The size of the truck bomb, the successful strike against a well-guarded target and the apparent careful planning were all signs of a skilled and experienced militant group.

“I don’t think it was the Taliban,” said Sajjan Gohel, of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London-based think tank on terrorism and security issues. “It seems more al-Qaida, or a group affiliated with al-Qaida, because of the scope and the ferocity of it.”

If al-Qaida was involved, it probably would claim responsibility in an emphatic way to show it remains viable despite the loss of key leaders this year in Pakistani government offensives and U.S. air attacks. After a bombing at the Danish embassy in Islamabad killed six people in June, al-Qaida released a detailed video taking credit for the blast and identifying the suicide attacker as a Saudi militant.

Saturday’s bombing struck an American-brand-name hotel that has been an institution here, a longtime watering hole for Pakistani officials and visitors engaged in social networking and political intrigue.

“That’s to show that they could strike in the heart of Islamabad,” Stephen Cohen, a Pakistan expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said of the attack’s orchestrators. “It was a symbolic target.”

The hotel sits less than a mile from the Parliament and is close to the prime minister’s residence, where Zardari and many of his ministers were dining when the blast went off about 8 p.m. Saturday. Security commandos swiftly surrounded the house and kept the officials sequestered inside for several hours afterward.

The suicide bomber’s truck was packed with more than a ton of explosives, authorities said. That massive payload ripped through the Marriott’s walls, blew out ceilings, scorched trees, reduced nearby cars to charred husks of twisted metal and shattered windows hundreds of yards away. Flames began shooting out of the windows of many of the hotel’s 290 rooms.

“I felt that a powerful earthquake had struck,” said Mohammed Mushtaq, an employee at a government building across from the hotel.

Although the hotel had been subjected to at least two smaller attacks in recent years, this time the bombing’s planners chose an hour when the building was sure to be overflowing with people: after sunset, as hotel guests and other visitors sat down in one of several restaurants to break the daily fast during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

Ahmed Yasin, a hotel employee, said he saw people bolt toward the rear exits after the blast tore through the hotel’s front section and reception area.

Dazed and bloodied survivors staggered through smoke and rubble. Body parts were strewn over a wide distance.

Among the wounded were a number of foreigners, including citizens of Germany and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. State Department said at least one American was killed and several others had been injured, and U.S. officials were working to notify the next of kin.

Lou Fintor, an embassy spokesman, said that there were no official embassy functions scheduled at the Marriott on Saturday evening. But visiting American delegations often stay at the Marriott, including, last week, the staff of Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In Washington, the Bush administration condemned the bombing.

“This is a reminder of the threat we all face. The United States will stand with Pakistan’s democratically elected government as they confront this challenge,” said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House.

Zardari, who is due to meet Bush at the United Nations next week, made a brief statement on national television after the bombing, vowing to rid his nuclear-armed country of the “cancer” of terrorism. He reminded Pakistanis that he was no stranger to the horrors of such violence, being the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December.

Earlier in the day, during his first address to Parliament, Zardari had pledged to “root out terrorism and extremism wherever and whenever they may rear their ugly heads.”

But his actions are severely constrained by Pakistan’s military and intelligence services, which remain the most powerful institutions in the land and which have a long history of actively aiding Islamic fighters.

During the tenure of former President Pervez Musharraf, U.S. officials expressed dissatisfaction with what they saw as a less-than-full-bore campaign by the army against militants who took refuge in the rugged, lawless tribal regions on the border with Afghanistan. Many militants are associated with the Taliban and al-Qaida.

In recent months, U.S. security forces have stepped up their fight against al-Qaida’s core leaders in northwest Pakistan, unleashing missile strikes and cross-border military operations from Afghanistan. Zardari and other Pakistani leaders have denounced such operations as infringements on their country’s sovereignty.

“They find it easy to criticize the U.S. for incursions rather than deal with the real problem, which is radical extremism,” Cohen said.

He added that a critical question is whether, after the brazen and spectacular attack on so high-profile a target as the Marriott Hotel, the Pakistani military will be roused to push back with more force against the militants.

“It’s 100 percent the army. If they feel this is an existential attack on Pakistan, then they have to mount a savage operation to counter it. There’s no two ways about it,” Cohen said.

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