Saturday, September 20, 2008

60 dead in Marriotte hotel blast in Islamabad

At least 60 people have been killed and 200 others wounded after a lorry-bomb attack on the Marriott hotel in Pakistan's capital Islamabad.

Reports said a suicide bomber drove a lorry packed with explosives into the entrance of the hotel.

Many foreigners stay in the hotel while visiting Pakistan and it is heavily guarded.

The blast resounded through Islamabad.

The AFP news agency reported that at least 60 people had been killed.

But there were fears the death toll could rise as many people were feared trapped in the hotel, which is close to the national assembly.

'Raging fires'

Kamal Hyder, Al Jazeera's correspondent reporting from Islamabad, said it is "probably the most powerful explosion [in Pakistan] in recent times".

He said among the wounded were five Americans, two Saudis, one Afghan, one Libyan and more than 170 Pakistanis.

"Fires are still raging and no one knows how many people have been killed in the explosion."

He said ambulances were still arriving at the scene, indicating that there "must be high casualties indeed".

"Whoever is responsible for this attack chose his target carefully; a very professionally carried out job," said Hyder.

Talat Masood, a military analyst, told Al Jazeera that the attack was "well-planned and co-ordinated".

Imran Khan, also reporting for Al Jazeera, said he had seen a number of bodies removed from the scene of the explosion and that the hotel was in danger of collapsing.

He said the driver of the vehicle didn't go through the security checkpoint.

"This is a massive explosion. Fire is spreading very quickly and has taken over the entire hotel," Khan said.

Pakistani government officials condemned the attack, with one minister calling it the 9/11 of Pakistan, a reference to the September 11 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York.

The US and Britain, both at the forefront of the so-called war on "terror", also condemned the attack.

Gordon Johndroe, the White House spokesman, said: "The United States strongly condemns the terrorist attack ... The United States will stand with Pakistan's democratically elected government as they confront this challenge."

David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, said it was a "disgraceful" attack and that it reinforced Britain's to resolve violent extremism.

Soldiers killed

The Islamabad bombing came on the heels of another which left at least eight Pakistani soldiers dead in a suicide attack on a military convoy in the country's northwest tribal region.

The attack took place as the troops passed through North Waziristan on Saturday, a security official said.

"Eight soldiers have died and some 12 others were injured," the official said, adding the death toll may increase.

Al Jazeera's Hyder said many soldiers had been killed in attacks in the area before.

"This attack occurred on a stretch of road that has become known as IED-ally," he said, referring to the acronym for an improvised explosive device.

A blast on Friday in Quetta at a religious school killed five students [AFP]
North Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan, is a sanctuary for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters and has been the scene of fierce battles and suicide attacks over the past several years.

A large number of Arab and Central Asian fighters linked to al-Qaeda are reported to be hiding near the town of Mir Ali, the site of Saturday's attack, officials said.

Pakistan's new government has committed itself to the US-led campaign against the fighters even though the campaign is unpopular throughout the country.

A senior official in the administration of George Bush, the US president, said on Friday Pakistan was not equipped to combat the fighters.

"This is a problem that's been created in sovereign Pakistani territory and the problem is going to be solved when Pakistan has an ability to exercise control over that territory," Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, said.

"We recognise that in the short term right now there are threats emanating out of that area that threaten Pakistan, that threaten our troops in Afghanistan and potentially threaten the homeland."

Madrassa blast

Saturday's violence came a day after an explosion at an Islamic school, known as a madrassa, near the Pakistani city of Quetta, killed five students and wounded eleven others, according to Pakistani police.

"The madrassa people say that someone threw explosives into it, but we are investigating," Wazir Khan Nasir, a police official, said, referring to Friday's incident.

"We are looking into all possibilities including ... whether they were preparing some explosives," another official said.

Quetta is the capital of Baluchistan, a southwestern province bordering Afghanistan, where a large number of madrassas were set up in the 1980s to raise volunteers to fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in a war covertly funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The Taliban came from the Baluchistan madrassas.

But Baluchistan is also fiercely independent inside Pakistan and ethnic Baluch fighters are battling Pakistani security forces for more autonomy for their region.

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