Dinner plans save Pakistan's rulers from hotel bomb attack

Other News Materials 22 September 2008 15:25 (UTC +04:00)

Pakistan's president, prime minister and other Cabinet members were supposed to have been at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad when a massive truck bomb detonated outside, killing 57 and injuring 266, Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Monday.

Malik said their planned dinner was changed at the last minute, although did not say how far in advance it had been planned.

The Speaker of the House, Fahmida Mirza, had planned the event for ministers, the president, their guests and various foreign dignitaries, reported CNN.

But at the last minute, President Asif Ali Zardari asked that the event be transferred to the Prime Minister's compound, Malik told reporters during a handover service for Czech Ambassador Ivo Zdarek, who died in the blast.

On Sunday Malik called the massive blast "the biggest attack, volume-wise" in Pakistan in seven years, based on the quantity -- 600kg -- and type of explosives used.

Two American military personnel who worked for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad were among those killed, the U.S. military said. A Lithuanian Pakistan was also among the fatalities, police superintendent Sheikh Zubair told CNN Sunday. The injured included 11 foreigners, Malik said.

No arrests have been made in connection with the attack. But Malik said suspicion is falling on militants in Pakistan's tribal regions.

"I am not in a position to tell you who has done it, but (in) all the previous investigations, all the roads have gone to South Waziristan," he said Sunday.

South Waziristan is one of seven agencies of Pakistan's tribal areas where Taliban and al Qaeda militants are active.

But Amir Mohammad, an aide to leader of the Pakistani Taliban Baitullah Mehsud, said he shared the country's grief and was not involved, The Associated Press reported.

Saturday's massive blast left a nearly 60-foot-wide (18 meters) crater, which was 24 feet (7m) deep, Malik said. It also caused a natural gas leak that set the top floor of the five-story, 258-room hotel on fire, police said. The blaze quickly engulfed the entire structure.

The blast occurred about 7:50 p.m., after the breaking of the fast during the holy month of Ramadan, Malik said. Trees were felled by the explosion, which occurred hours after newly elected President Asif Ali Zardari addressed a joint session of Parliament and promised to root out terrorism.

At a news conference in Islamabad on Sunday, Pakistani authorities released security video of the blast, showing a small explosion inside the truck before the larger, deadly explosion.

In the video, a large truck crashes into the security gate, sending one security officer scurrying for safety. Then, as security guards approach the truck, the top of the vehicle explodes and the security guards flee.

A small cloud of smoke appears above the truck, which is engulfed in flames minutes later. One of the security guards tries to put out the fire with a hand-held extinguisher, to no avail. The guards then walk away, and the camera freezes on the burning truck.

Pakistani officials said the blast apparently disrupted electricity to the area, causing the closed-circuit television camera to malfunction.

The Marriott, a Western brand-name hotel, has been the site of attacks in the past.

Malik said authorities had received a threat against the parliament two days ago. "We had taken all security measures," he said. "There was heavy security in the city."

Located near the diplomatic section of the city and heavily guarded by police and military, the hotel is popular among tourists and had been packed Saturday night.

British Airways temporarily suspended its flights to Islamabad Sunday as a result of the security situation, according to an airline spokeswoman who did not want to be named.

A Sunday night flight was canceled, and the airline is reviewing its operations for later in the week. British Airways operates at least three flights a week to the Pakistani capital out of London's Heathrow Airport.

• Militants kidnapped an Afghan diplomat and killed his driver in northwest Pakistan Monday, police said. The diplomat, Abdul Khaliq Farahi -- who works in the Afghan consulate in Peshawar -- was on his way home when someone opened fire, police in Peshawar said.

The shooting killed Farahi's driver and he was abducted, said Akhtar Muneer of Peshawar police.