Just hours after Pakistan's new President Asif Ali Zardari promised in his inaugural address to stamp out terrorism and extremism, militants answered with a bloody attack in his capital. A massive truck bomb at the gates of the Marriott Hotel, located in the heart of Islamabad close to parliament and other government buildings, killed at least 50 people and wounded some 200, leaving a 30-foot crater and destroying much of the hotel frequented by foreigners and well-to-do locals. It was the largest bomb to ever hit the city, with police estimating its payload at more than 2,200 pounds of explosives.
According to eyewitnesses, a large truck pulled up at the gates of the hotel at 8 p.m. local time, when many people inside the hotel were finishing their iftar meal to break the day's Ramadan fast. "The suicide bomber tried to enter from the main gate and blew up his truck," Sadruddin Hashwani, the hotel's owner, told reporters outside the hotel shortly after the attack. "Gas pipelines exploded because of the blast, causing the fire. Some people are still stuck, and we're trying to evacuate them."
The casualties included Ivo Zdarek, the Czech Republic's ambassador to Pakistan, and Dawn News TV, a local English-language channel, also reported that three Americans and a Danish diplomat were also killed although this was not confirmed by the U.S. embassy. A number of security personnel and hotel staff who had reportedly tried to stop the truck were also killed in the blast.The death toll is expected to rise, with the severely wounded including 10 foreigners from Germany, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Afghanistan. The landmark hotel is favored by foreign businessmen and government officials. Foreigners have been attacked twice before in Islamabad this year, when a small bomb killed one woman at an Italian restaurant, and al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for a subsequent attack on the Danish embassy.
The army was deployed to rescue survivors believed to be trapped inside the building as firefighters struggled to douse the flames that have irreparably damaged the building. Across the road, a row of cars were charred and mangled in front of an enclave of government residences, including the homes of many ministers, where the windows were smashed by the force of the blast.
The attack followed Zardari's address to a joint session of parliament, in which he vowed that his government would unite with other political forces behind a common strategy for fighting terrorism and extremism, but would not allow any foreign forces to enter Pakistan's territory a clear reference to the mounting controversy over U.S. military operations against al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan's tribal areas. "We will not tolerate the violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity by any power in the name of combating terrorism," said Zardari, who is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week.
Although there has been no claim of responsibility for the Marriott attack, it is widely suspected that the Pakistan Taliban based in the tribal areas along the Afghan border are responsible. The Interior Ministry announced after the attack that it had received a non-specific warning, presumed to be from the Pakistan Taliban, of an attack on Saturday. After a months-long attempt at negotiating truces with militants, the Pakistani government has recently begun to act more aggressively, with a six-week long counterinsurgency operation currently underway in the Bajaur tribal agency. But, analysts say, the government has largely been distracted by internal wrangling over the fate of former president, Pervez Musharraf and the judges he sacked last year. On the day of the attack, Rehman Malik, the Interior Ministry chief, had boasted to reporters outside parliament that terrorism had diminished by "90%".
Zardari announced Friday that parliament would receive a confidential security briefing, in an effort to broaden support for his government's policy on the extremists. The government has been criticised for failing to discuss the issue with the legislature, and for lacking a coherent strategy. Pakistan's participation in the Bush Administration's "war on terror" is unpopular in Pakistan, with critics routinely describing it as "an American war" that has only succeeded in fueling extremism and terrorism in Pakistan.
The attack in Islamabad was roundly denounced by all political parties and has once again raised fears of the rising ambitions of the militants. Local television channels have expressed outrage at the atrocity, and staged a fierce debate about the direction of the country. Geo Tv, the largest cable news channel, interspersed its coverage with a brief clip that mourns the loss of life against the background of the national anthem. "Ask yourself, what kind of Muslim can do this? What kind of human can do this?" a voiceover begged.
"The Taliban and the terrorists are saying this is war and we are here," says Najam Sethi, the editor of several Lahore-based liberal newspapers and a respected analyst. "This was as close as you can get to the parliament where President Zardari was speaking earlier today. They have had a lot of time to prepare for this." Sethi said that the militants had now turned on civilians, after focusing chiefly on military and law-enforcement targets in the past.
"They used to attack the military in the hoping of it isolating it from Musharraf. Then Benazir Bhutto came back and said she would take them on, and they attack her homecoming and later killed her," Sethi adds. "There are going to be two opinions coming out of this. The first, which I call the position of capitulation, will says, 'This is what happens when we fight America's war'. Then there are others, like us, who say we have to take them on. But what is needed is for all political parties, including the opposition, to come on board and take ownership of the policy."