Islamabad, Sep 20: At least 60 people, including some foreigners, were killed and about 120 injured in a suicide attack at a luxury hotel in the high security zone around the parliament building here Saturday, even as the country's ruling elite, including the president and the three service chiefs, were attending an Iftar dinner at the Prime Minister House barely a kilometre away.
Orange flames and thick smoke billowed out of the Marriott Hotel, which turned into a blazing inferno as police, ambulances and rescue workers raced to the spot to tend to the injured. The authorities feared that the toll could rise as the blast, caused by an explosives-laden truck crashing into the hotel, left a 20-foot deep crater at its entrance.
There was speculation that the hotel, a landmark building that is the preferred destination of visiting diplomats and businessmen, could collapse.
Twisted and mangled remains of a number of vehicles littered the hotel's car park. The hotel is located near a number of high security buildings, including the Presidential Palace, the Prime Minister House, parliament and the Supreme Court.
"The fire has engulfed the whole hotel and people are being rescued," Advisor to the Prime Minister on Interior Affairs Rehman Malik, who reached the spot after the blast, said.
Initial reports said that a truck loaded with explosives hit the outer wall of the hotel, which soon went up in flames. Security officials said that several people who were residing in the hotel were still trapped inside and efforts were being made to rescue them.
Hospital sources said that they had received about 40 bodies and more than 100 injured. However, eyewitnesses said that the number of dead is more than 60 and more than 120 have been injured.
Police sources said that the dead include three Koreans, two Saudis and one American. Among the injured are some foreigners, including some Americans who were shifted to the hospital inside the US Embassy. Unconfirmed reports also said that a senior US security official was among the injured.
Eyewitnesses said that the explosives-laden truck, bearing government number plates, was stopped at the hotel entrance for a security check.
"As the security people were looking into the truck, it swiftly moved away and hit the outer wall of the hotel, causing a huge explosion," an eyewitness said.
The blast also caused the main gas pipeline outside the hotel to explode, adding to the mayhem. Sources said that at least 300 people were dining in the hotel when the blast took place. Being the fasting month of Ramadan people dine immediately after the sunset, which was at 7.12 p.m. Saturday and the blast took place at 7.56 p.m.
The blast occurred about four hours after President Asif Ali Zardari addressed a joint sitting of both houses of parliament, during which he called for joint efforts to deal with terrorism and extremism.
The impact of the blast was so severe that its reverberations were heard in a 15 kilometre area and many Islamabad residents thought an earthquake had struck. The windows of nearby buildings, including that of Pakistan Television, were shattered.
An emergency was declared in Islamabad hospitals as they braced to receive the injured and the bodies of those killed.
Advisor Malik condemned the attack and said that whoever was behind the blast "can't be friends of Islam or friends of this country".
Lamented Marriott Hotel owner Sadruddin Hashwani: "I don't have any enemies...these must be enemies of Pakistan. This is a huge loss to the country, to humanity," he told reporters outside the building.
President Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the chiefs of the navy and the air force, provincial governors, chief ministers, federal and provincial ministers and more than 300 MPs were attending the dinner at the PM House, official sources said.
National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza was hosting the dinner in honour of the president after his maiden address to a joint sitting of parliament Saturday afternoon. The governors, chief ministers and other high-ranking government officials were invited to hear the president's address.
The sources said that the dignitaries were sitting around tables on the lawns of the PM House after the Iftar and sunset prayers and dinner was being served when the bomb exploded with an ear-splitting sound, shattering windows of the sprawling mansion.
The sources said that immediately efter the blast, security personnel herded the VVIPs who were sitting around the high table into the building, which is about 100 yards from the main lawn. The sources confirmed that all the VVIPs were safe.
An eyewitness said that as crockery came crashing down from the tables, many thought that there was a blast within the PM House.
Security officials feared that the intended destination of the explosives-laden van was the PM House and that it perhaps could not reach there because of the high security that was in place in the capital since morning.