x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Car bombing kills scores and destroys Islamabad Marriott

An apparent suicide bomber drove a lorry laden with 1,000 kilograms of explosives into the front gates of the popular Marriott Hotel.

Fire rages in the Marriott Hotel after a bomb attack caused massive damage to the building and surrounding area.
Fire rages in the Marriott Hotel after a bomb attack caused massive damage to the building and surrounding area.

Islamabad // An apparent suicide bomber drove a lorry laden with 1,000 kilograms of explosives into the front gates of the popular Marriott Hotel in Islamabad last night, killing at least 60 people, and injuring more than 200. The bombing was one of the worst terrorist attacks the country has witnessed since it joined the US-led war on terrorism in 2001 and came just hours after Asif Ali Zardari, the president, pledged to tackle the growing Islamic militancy that has taken hold in tribal border areas.

The attack happened at about 8pm when the lorry rammed into the five-star hotel's security gates and exploded, leaving a crater eight to 10 metres deep outside the building and engulfing it in flames as smoke billowed high above the city. Officials feared the structure could collapse. A witness said a small vehicle blew up at the gate before the lorry rammed it and entered the hotel compound. The blast brought down the ceiling in the banquet room, where about 200 to 300 people were breaking their fast and where many of the victims were found.

Dead bodies littered the foyer of the hotel, which was about 15 metres from the security gate. The security team guarding the main gate, as well as the concrete barriers and ramps, were obliterated in the blast. "The death toll is 60 and it may go up," a security official told Agence France-Presse. He said many people died after jumping from the third and fourth floors of the six-storey building to escape a fire.

Among the dead were women, children, security guards and foreign guests, he said. The blast shattered windows within a kilometre of the blast. The 290-room hotel, which has been the target of two previous terrorist attacks in 2004 and 2007, is popular among foreigners as well as politicians, diplomats and businessmen. The incident may prove the first major challenge for Mr Zardari and Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, who were dining at the prime minister's residence along with several other government leaders just a kilometre away when the bomb went off.

"This is terrorism and we have to fight it together as a nation," said Rehman Malik, the head of Pakistan's interior ministry. Foreign embassy officials arrived at the hotel quickly to remove their nationals from the scene. Ali Awadh Asseri, Saudi Arabia's ambassador, said up to six Saudis were missing. "We had 16 nationals staying at the hotel and a few are missing ? four to six," he said. Another bystander said he saw the dead bodies of at least four westerners. A local news channel reported that a Danish citizen and three US nationals were among the injured.

An official from the US state department was seen using a section of white pipe as a walking stick to help lead three colleagues through the rubble of the charred building, one of them bleeding heavily from a head wound. Dozens of ambulances ferried the wounded away as the capital's hospitals were put on a state of emergency and issued calls for blood donors. Asghar Raza Gardaizi, a police official, told the Associated Press the blast was caused by more than 1,000 kilograms of explosives.

But the latest incident only emphasised the escalating tensions in the country since it joined the US-led "war on terrorism" in 2001. Indian TV reported that Pakistan's version of the Taliban had claimed responsibility for the attack. Pakistan is currently battling the militants in its tribal areas and the country is embroiled in a national crisis over how to prosecute the war against terrorism.

More than 1,200 people have been killed in suicide and terrorist attacks in Pakistan this year. Most of the violence has stemmed from the border areas, where western intelligence officials believe al Qa'eda has taken refuge. Washington has been pressing Pakistan to take stronger action against the militants, whom the United States said were making cross-border attacks on its troops in neighbouring Afghanistan. Angry at Islamabad's perceived foot-dragging over tackling militancy, Washington staged an unprecedented commando ground assault on the border tribal area of South Waziristan two weeks ago, Further inflaming tensions. The military has claimed to have killed more than 700 militants in the tribal area of Bajaur in the last month.

The United States strongly condemns the terrorist attack that took place in Islamabad, Pakistan, today," national security council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a statement. "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," Mr Johndroe said. In his address to parliament, Mr Zardari pledged to fight militants. But he told parliament that Pakistan would not tolerate any infringement of its territory in the name of the fight against terrorism.

iwilkinson@thenational.ae