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Pakistan Hunts for Bombers of Landmark Hotel

BY Admin  September 22, 2008 at 5:55 PM EST

Rescue operation at Islamabad Marriott; AP

Some 270 people were wounded in the attack and the
dead included the Czech ambassador to Pakistan and two U.S. Department of
Defense employees.

The nation’s leaders were set to meet at the
luxurious Marriott hotel — a central hub for political and social activity in
the capital popular with foreigners — at the time of the bombing on Saturday but
they opted to congregate elsewhere, a senior Pakistani official said Monday.

Rehman Malik, head of the Interior Ministry, did not
say why President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani decided to
move the dinner to the premier’s house, but said the decision was kept secret.

“Perhaps the terrorists knew that the Marriott
was the venue of the dinner for all the leadership where the president, prime
minister, speaker and all entire leadership would be present,” he told
reporters Monday, according to the Associated Press. “At the eleventh
hour, the president and prime minister decided that the venue would be the
prime minister’s house. It saved the entire leadership.”

“The national assembly speaker had arranged a dinner
for the entire leadership – for the president, prime minister and armed
services chiefs – at the Marriott that day,” Malik told reporters.

However, hotel owner Saddrudin Hashwani flatly
contradicted Malik’s statement, saying there was never a booking for a
government dinner at the hotel the night of the bombing.

“We don’t know if the government is
exaggerating the actual situation, which could perhaps be a benefit to show
Pakistan as a victim of terrorism, or if this case was true,” Lahore-based
journalist and author Ahmed Rashid told the NewsHour in an interview on Monday.
“In fact this reception was held at the president’s house at the same time
the bomb went off. So we really don’t know the truth of that. But the
government is making this claim and it has to be taken seriously.”

Hashwani, who is one of Pakistan’s richest men,
vowed to reopen the hotel by the end of the year, the BBC reported.

“I am not scared. I have seen death very
closely, this doesn’t bother me,” he said. “If I had been here, I would
have run after the bombers and caught them.”

Crews have begun to make repairs to the hotel, in
hopes of eliminating a depressing eyesore in the middle of the capital,
Hashwani said.

“This is a message,” he told the BBC.
“Pakistan must awaken and fight these terrorists.”

The hotel was often in the international spotlight,
serving as a base for many journalists prior to the U.S.-led invasion of
Afghanistan in 2001.

“It’s been a landmark in the capital as much as
the Twin Towers were a landmark for New York. It was a political hub – all the
politicians from Parliament would gather there for tea and coffee,” Rashid
said. “Now two bomb blasts had gone off there in the last couple of years
and so diplomats were keeping away from the place, but it still remained.”

Dramatic surveillance footage released Sunday showed
how the explosive-laden truck, smashing into a gate then burning for more than
three minutes. Guards tried to extinguish it before they, the truck and much of
the hotel facade vanished in a fireball.

Suspicion has fallen on al-Qaida or the Pakistani
Taliban for orchestrating the blast.

But Amir Mohammad, an aide to one prominent
Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, said the militant group was not
involved and shared the nation’s grief over the attack. Mehshud was blamed in
the past for a suicide attack that killed President Zardari’s wife, the
pro-U.S. politician Benazir Bhutto. He denies that charge too.

“We have our own targets and we execute our
plans precisely with minimal loss of irrelevant or innocent people,”
Mehsud was quoted as saying by his spokesman, according to media reports.
“We have nothing to do with the Marriott hotel attack.”

Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Islamabad, Kamal Hyder,
noticed that the explosive “RDX was used in the attack, which is a very
volatile substance. The big question is: Where did such a large amount of RDX
come from? In previous attacks, militants have not used this substance.”

Meanwhile, the Pakistani government is under U.S.
pressure to crack down on militants along its border with Afghanistan, who are
also blamed for staging rising attacks on coalition forces in the region. Two
intelligence officials told the AP that said Pakistani troops and tribesmen
opened fire on two U.S. helicopters after they crossed into a northwest tribal
region from Afghanistan.

Pakistan and Afghanistan have begun to discuss a
possible joint force to combat militants on both sides of their border, which
has become a safe haven for al-Qaida and other groups, Afghan Defense Minister
Abdul Rahim Wardak told reporters Monday.

The force would include U.S. troops and address
soaring insurgent violence that he said has stretched the capabilities of U.S.,
NATO and Afghan forces inside Afghanistan, he said.

“We should have a combined joint task force of
coalition, Afghans and Pakistanis to be able to operate on the both sides of
the border,” Wardak said at the Pentagon during a visit to Washington to
discuss a Kabul plan to nearly double the size of the Afghan army.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, told Congress recently that he had ordered a new U.S. military strategy
for the region that would for the first time encompass Afghanistan and
Pakistan.

Given recent events in Pakistan, “everyone
should realize we have a common threat, a common enemy and a common objective
to achieve,” Wardak said. He added that insurgent violence in Afghanistan
rose three-fold from 2005 to 2007 and said: “2008 is going to be the
highest among all.”

Samina Ahmed, South Asia director for the International
Crisis Group, told the NewsHour that Zardari’s new government has tried to
implement a three-pronged counterinsurgency plan: negotiating, but only with
groups that renounce violence; economic and political development “to win
hearts and minds”; and the use of force “when the state is
threatened.”

The president’s basic strategy seems worthwhile, she
said, but it has limited resources to implement it because it does not have full
control over the nation’s security agencies.