As a pungent smell hung in Islamabad's air from the gently smouldering ruins of the Marriott Hotel, Pakistani officials released their preliminary findings into what they called "the biggest explosion in Pakistani history". The bomb attack in the heart of the capital has left 53 people dead and 266 injured, according to the Interior Ministry.
The death toll, which is expected to rise still further, included four foreigners: Ivo Zdarek, the Czech Republic's ambassador to Pakistan, two Americans assigned to the U.S. Embassy, and a Vietnamese woman. "The target was the Marriott," Rehman Malik, the Interior Ministry chief, told a packed news conference in the gloom-filled Pakistani capital. Contradicting earlier reports that the original target had been the nearby parliament building, where newly-elected President Asif Ali Zardari had earlier made his inaugural address, Malik said the bombers had targeted an "international chain" in search of "international attention".
The death toll could have been much larger had the perpetrators managed to plough their truck into the lobby of the hotel, Malik said before revealing CCTV footage of the final moments before the blast. The dramatic scenes, captured by cameras mounted near the roof of the hotel, showed the truck banging against the gates before sniffer dogs alert the guards of the threat. Some of the men can be seen fleeing in a panic when a small explosion takes place in the cab of the truck, causing it to catch fire as vapour is released into the air. A guard tries to extinguish the flames just before the screen goes blue, marking the point at which the explosion destroyed the cameras.
"We heard a loud, loud bang," says Shah Hussain, 25, a waiter who had been serving guests their evening iftar meal to break the day's Ramadan fast in the Marquee Hall at the back of the hotel, where 14 people died. Within moments of the blast, the roof collapsed over the diners. "Everyone was crying and screaming, helplessly. Some of the guests were killed instantly," adds Hussain, whose white tunic uniform is stained with blood after helping carry the wounded out through the emergency exit and on to hospital. "Thank God that they were stopped at the gates," he continues. "If they got any closer, or even inside, nothing would have survived. The building would have collapsed and we all would have been killed."
Despite fears that it could yet collapse, the deeply blackened structure of the hotel remains intact. Inside the lobby, where local politicians and journalists would ritually gather for discreet conversation, the furniture has been overturned. The floor is covered in scattered shards of glass, broken bits of the ceiling, torn carpet, leaves, and small pools of blood. The once blindingly luminous ceiling chandelier now dangles precariously over the reception desk. Only the rarely used grand piano appears undamaged. And there's water everywhere.
"We were firefighting for twelve hours to put out the fires," says a uniformed rescue worker who only identifies himself as Tayyeb. The potency of the flames, Malik reported, derived from the use "aluminium powder" mixed in the now estimated 1,300 pounds of explosives. "It accelerated the fires," he said. In the rooms above, the temperature is estimated to have reached 400 degrees celsius (752 degrees, Fahreneit) , claiming the lives of 12 people on the third and fourth floors.
The brazen nature and devastation wrought by the attack has provoked a level of public condemnation not heard since the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto last December. Local headlines labeled the atrocity "Pakistan's 9/11," and in his first televised address since assuming office, President Zardari urged Pakistanis to "make this pain your strength". "This is a menace, a cancer in Pakistan which we will eliminate," he declared. "We will not be scared of these cowards."
Although the attack is almost certain to be the work of Islamist extremists, the identity of its authors remains unclear. There is mounting speculation that al-Qaeda or its associates may have been involved. Malik insisted that it was too early to say, but hinted that early suspicions were being cast on Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, who has been accused of ordering the bulk of the nearly 100 suicide attacks to have killed over 1,000 people in Pakistan over the past two years. "There has been no arrest taken place on this incident, because it just happened last night. But in previous investigations, all the roads have gone to South Waziristan," he said, in a reference to Mehsud's mountainous tribal base along the Afghan border.
Amid fierce debate in the local media over how to counter the extremist threat, analysts have criticized government leaders for leaving Islamabad on Sunday. The President left for New York where he will attend the U.N. General Assembly, and will meet with President Bush on the sidelines. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, meanwhile, flew to the eastern city of Lahore. "Political forces need to join hands at this moment," says Talat Masood, a retired general turned analyst. "There should have been a day or two of meeting with the political parties and religious parties to try and develop a consensus [on the issue of combating terrorism]."