A huge truck bomb exploded at the entrance to the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on Saturday evening, killing at least 40 people and wounding more than 250, the police said.
The blast, one of the worst acts of terrorism in Pakistan's history, went off just a few hundred yards from the prime minister's house, where all the leaders of government were dining after the president's address to Parliament.
The toll was expected to grow because of reports that many people had been trapped inside the hotel, which has been a favorite meeting spot of both foreigners and well-connected Pakistanis in the heart of the capital. The building was quickly engulfed in flames and continued to burn for hours Saturday night.
The bomb left a vast crater, some 40 feet wide and 25 feet deep, at the security barrier to the hotel. Witnesses said security guards were buried under a mound of rubble. A line of cars across the street from the hotel was mangled, and trees on the street were charred. Windows in buildings hundreds of yards away were shattered.
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A senior police official, Ashfaq Ahmed Khan, said initial reports suggested that an explosives-laden dump truck was detonated near the entrance.
Hospital staff and other officials said more than 250 people were wounded, including four Britons, four Germans and one each from the U.S., Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Libya, Lebanon and Afghanistan.
The bombing, which officials said was the deadliest to take place in the capital, may have been timed for the day that President Asif Ali Zardari made his first address to Parliament since his election two weeks ago. Zardari, whose wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in December, vowed to root out terrorism and extremism and to stop terrorists from using Pakistani soil to attack other countries.
Both he and the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, condemned the attack and repeated their determination to deal with terrorism with an iron hand, the state news agency, the Associated Press of Pakistan, reported.
Though there was no immediate claim of responsibility, Pakistani officials have warned that militancy could heat up following a wave of cross-border strikes on militant bases by U.S. forces in Afghanistan that had angered public opinion.
IntelCenter, a group which monitors al-Qaida communications, said senior al-Qaida leader Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, who claimed the June Danish Embassy bombing in Islamabad, threatened additional attacks against Western interests in Pakistan in a video timed to the recent anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
President Bush condemned the attack, while stopping short of assigning blame.
The presidential candidates were less reluctant — Republican John McCain pointed to “violent Islamic extremism,” and Democrat Barack Obama said the attack “demonstrates the grave and urgent threat that al-Qaida and its affiliates pose to the United States, to Pakistan, and to the security of all nations.”
Bush said in a statement that the attack “is part of a continuing assault on the people of Pakistan.”
The Islamabad Marriott has been attacked by militants at least twice in the past, including a suicide attack in 2007 that killed a policeman.
“The Marriott is an icon,” said Abdullah Riar, a former aide to Bhutto. “It's like the twin towers of Pakistan. It's a symbolic place in the capital of the country, and now it has melted down.” The Associated Press contributed.