The Pakistani President, Prime Minister and military chief of staff were due to attend a banquet at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, where bombers killed at least 53 people, but a last-minute change of venue saved them.
The disclosure that the leadership of the country was the likely target of the attack on Saturday came as militants kidnapped Afghanistan’s top diplomat in the country and British Airways suspended all flights to and from Pakistan because of security concerns.
The Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, said that the venue for a banquet to mark the inaugural address of President Zardari to a joint session of Parliament was moved to the residence of the Prime Minister because of intelligence warning of an attack.
A bomber blew up a lorry containing 600kg (1,320lb) of explosives, including artillery shells, outside the Marriott, wrecking the hotel. At least 11 foreign nationals, including the Czech Ambassador and two US military personnel, were killed in the blast inside the high-security zone of Islamabad. “The last-minute decision saved the leaders,” Mr Malik said.
Security agencies detained several activists of outlawed Islamic militant groups for questioning. Mr Malik said that al-Qaeda militants and their Taleban allies based in northwestern frontier regions were suspected of involvement. A Pakistani investigator said that the explosives were similar to those used in an attack on the Danish Embassy in Islamabad in June, which was claimed by al-Qaeda.
It is thought that the explosives were smuggled into Islamabad from the militant stronghold in the tribal region bordering Afghanistan. The attack was apparently planned and executed by militant cells in the capital.
Masked gunmen abducted Afghanistan’s ambassador-designate to Pakistan in the northwestern city of Peshawar, where he serves as Consul-General. Abdul Khaliq Farahi was travelling to his home in the wealthy suburb of Hayatabad in Peshawar when the gunmen killed his driver and abducted him. Mr Farahi, a former Mujahidin leader, was opposed to Taleban rule in Afghanistan and supported the American-backed Government of President Karzai. Mr Malik said that Mr Farahi had been taken to the Jamrud tribal area near Peshawar, a militant stronghold.
This year militants kidnapped the Pakistani Ambassador to Afghanistan and last month gunmen opened fire on the car of the US Consul-General. In another indication of the continuing unrest, Pakistani troops fired at two American helicopters near the Afghan border yesterday.
As security concerns grew, British Airways announced the suspension of all flights to and from Pakistan. A spokesman said that the airline, which normally runs six flights to Islamabad each week, did not face a direct security threat but took the step as a precaution. The move by the airline came as many foreign diplomatic missions and aid groups in Pakistan reviewed their security operations. American schools in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi were closed because of the threat of terrorist attacks.
September 23, 2008
Zahid Hussain in Islamabad
Source: The Times