ISLAMABAD, Sept 20: An explosive-laden truck rammed into the front gate of a premier hotel in a high-security zone of Islamabad on Saturday, setting off what police called the most devastating suicide attack in the capital that killed at least 40 people and wounded more than 250.
The attack outside the five-star Marriott Hotel — not far from key government buildings such as the parliament house, the presidency, the prime minister’s house and Pakistan Television headquarters — happened early in the evening shortly after Iftar and hours after President Asif Ali Zardari addressed a joint session of the two houses of parliament where he said Pakistan would not allow the use of its territory for terrorist activities.
In an address to the nation after Saturday midnight, President Asif Ali Zardari vowed to “continue to fight terrorism and extremism”.
“The government will continue to fight terrorism and extremism in all its forms and manifestations and such dastardly acts cannot dent the government’s commitment to fight this menace,” Mr Zardari said.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani joined the president in condemning the massive attack.
The president and the prime minister have ordered authorities to conduct an inquiry into the blast and to submit a report within 12 hours.
Information Minister Sherry Rehman told reporters that “such cowardly acts cannot deter the government’s commitment to fight terrorism and extremism”.
There was no immediate report of any foreigner killed in the blast that set off fires, apparently due to gas leakages, in most of the five-floor hotel in Islamabad’s F-5 sector. But police and doctors said some foreigners were among the wounded taken to hospitals.
An Iftar dinner, also attended by President Zardari, was being held at the prime minister’s house at the time of the blast, which shook the whole of Islamabad, causing panic in markets and residential districts.
While rescue workers were busy tracing blast victims inside the burning hotel, some streets near the building looked like graveyards of destroyed cars.
Places as far away as 30kms from the hotel reverberated with the thunder of the explosion. Almost all the 290 rooms of the hotel, which was occupied by both local and foreign guests, were gutted.
Four foreigners — one American, two Saudis and one Filipino — were killed and seven — two Saudis, three Germans and two British nationals — were wounded.
According to earlier unofficial reports, over 40 people were killed mostly from those attending an Iftar party at the hotel’s Marquee Hall located on front side of the building.
The blast caused a huge crater, 20 feet deep and 40 feet wide, at the main entrance of the hotel where, according to some witnesses, a white mini-truck rammed into the steel barrier at 8.05pm.
Interior Secretary Syed Kamal Shah told reporters outside the hotel that it was a “unique blast”.
Rehman Malik, the adviser to the prime minister on interior, said preliminary investigations revealed that some 1000kgs of explosive material had been used in the blast. He put the death toll at 28 and the number of the injured at 50.
Mr Malik revealed the interior ministry had received intelligence that terrorists could strike the Parliament Building on the occasion of presidential address to the joint session of parliament.
“As a result of the report, security was already tightened in the federal capital and additional police and rangers were called into the city to foil designs of the terrorists.”
Outside the hotel, the blast destroyed over 150 cars parked within a radius of 500 feet, uprooted a number of trees and electricity poles, and damaged nearby buildings, including the Frontier House, the Evacuee Trust Building, and those housing the Federal Public Service Commission, Pakistan Television, and government residential buildings.
The timing of the blast was significant as it coincided with an Iftar dinner at the Prime Minister’s House only half a kilometre away.
Some witnesses said the driver of the mini-truck first fired three shots at security guards manning the checkpost of the hotel and then hit the steel barrier. The truck soon turned into a heap of twisted metal, splinters flying in all directions and landing at a good distance from the scene.
A mangled door was found deep inside the crater.
The authorities concerned have been ordered to conduct an inquiry into the bombing and submit a report within 12 hours.
A team comprising police and intelligence officials has been set up to carry out the inquiry.
Sadruddin Hashwani, the owner of the Marriott, told reporters outside the burning building that some 300 people were in the Marquee Hall attending an Iftar function, and about 1,000 guests were staying at the hotel.
Six hundred members of the staff were present in the building when tragedy struck.
Mr Hashwani said almost all the guests had been evacuated. But the Marquee Hall bore the brunt of the strike
Saudi Ambassador Alfawad Al Aseeri rushed to the scene after hearing reports that five employees of the Saudi Arabian Airlines were missing.
Four other employees were admitted to hospital after receiving injuries.
“I hope that the missing crew members are safe or they would have been shifted to some private hospitals for treatment,” he said.
According to some sources, a number of US marines who had put up at the Marriott sustained injuries. They were due to leave for Kabul on Sunday.