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Pakistan shaken by deadly blast in capital

Special to The Times

As Pakistan reeled from one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in its history, rescuers today continued the search for victims of a suicide truck bombing that leveled a five-star hotel frequented by foreign diplomats and the nation’s elite.

At least 40 people were killed and 250 wounded when a truck full of explosives was rammed into the gates of the Marriott Hotel.

The thunderous blast in the heart of the Pakistani capital reverberated for miles, carving out a crater 30 feet deep and setting off a fire that continued to burn into the early hours of today. Dozens of people were believed trapped inside.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which came 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 U.S., especially over American military operations against the Taliban and other Islamic extremists who have set up base in Pakistan.

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Western anti-terrorist officials were eager to see whether responsibility for the attack would be claimed by the core leadership of Al Qaeda or by one of an array of radical fundamentalist groups operating in the lawless regions along the border with Afghanistan.

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

The size of the truck bomb, the successful strike against a well-guarded target and the apparently 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 Qaeda, or a group affiliated with Al Qaeda, because of the scope and the ferocity of it.”

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If Al Qaeda was involved, it probably would claim responsibility in an emphatic way to demonstrate that 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 Qaeda released a detailed video claiming responsibility 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 gathering place for Pakistani officials and foreigners 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, said of the militants’ apparent motive. “It was a symbolic target.”

The hotel is less than a mile from Pakistan’s parliament and is near the prime minister’s residence, where Zardari and many of his ministers were dining when the blast went off about 8 p.m. Commandos swiftly surrounded the house and kept the officials sequestered inside for several hours.

The suicide bomber’s truck was packed with more than a ton of explosives, authorities said. The massive blast ripped through the Marriott Hotel’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, who works at a government building across from the hotel.

Although the hotel had been targeted by at least two smaller attacks in recent years, this time the bombing’s planners picked 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 observed during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

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

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Dazed and bloodied survivors staggered through smoke and rubble. Body parts were strewn over a large area.

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

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

In Washington, the Bush administration strongly 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 scheduled to meet Bush at the United Nations this 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: His wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated last December.

Earlier in the day, during his first address to parliament, Zardari 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 elements in which have a long history of actively aiding Islamic fighters.

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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 Pakistani army against the Islamic militants who took refuge in the rugged, lawless tribal regions. Many of these militants are associated with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

In recent months, U.S. security forces have stepped up their fight against Al Qaeda’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 crucial question now is whether, after the brazen and spectacular attack on such a high-profile target as the Marriott Hotel, the Pakistani military will be roused to push back against the militants with more force.

“It’s 100% 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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henry.chu@latimes.com

Times staff writer Chu reported from London and special correspondent Zaidi from Islamabad. Times staff writers Sebastian Rotella in Madrid, Josh Meyer in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Peter Spiegel in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Major Pakistan bombings in the last year:

* Sept. 20: A truck bomb devastates the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad; at least 40 people killed, 250 injured.

* Aug. 21: Suicide bombers strike at a mammoth weapons factory in Wah; least 67 killed, more than 70 hurt.

* Aug. 19: A bomb at a hospital in Dera Ismail Khan, in the volatile northwest, kills 32.

* March 11: Two suicide blasts rip through a house and a police building in Lahore; at least 24 killed, 200 injured.

* March 2: A suicide bomber attacks tribesmen meeting in the town of Dara Adam Khel to discuss resistance to militants, killing at least 42.

* Feb. 29: A suicide bomber strikes the funeral of a police officer in the Swat valley; more than 40 killed, 60 injured.

* Oct. 18: Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s convoy is attacked in Karachi as she returns from exile; about 150 killed.

From the Associated Press


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