Wednesday, June 10, 2009

16 dead in Pakistan hotel blast, Taliban blamed

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) - – Pakistani police have pulled bodies from the charred rubble of a luxury hotel in northwest Peshawar after a suicide car bomb killed 16 people in the city troubled by Taliban violence.

A top provincial official said the massive blast at the Pearl Continental Hotel late Tuesday was likely the latest in a string of revenge attacks by Islamist militants over a six-week offensive against them in the northwest.

Police hunting for the dead moved from room to room in the five-star hotel on Wednesday, large parts of which were reduced to rubble when at least two attackers shot security guards and then slammed an explosives-laden car into the building.

Five more bodies were pulled from the dust and rubble early Wednesday, bringing the death toll to 16, Peshawar police chief Sefwat Ghayur said, with more victims feared trapped under the debris.

"The blast is a reaction to the army offensive in Swat and Malakand. The possibility of this type of terrorist attack cannot be ruled out in future," North West Frontier Province information minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said.

Police official Abdul Ghafoor Afridi told AFP that 57 people were injured, including some foreigners who have been taken from Peshawar, the provincial capital, to Islamabad for treatment.

"The number of casualties could rise as we fear that some people are still trapped under the debris," Afridi said.

"One portion of the hotel was totally destroyed. Three people including a manager of the hotel are missing and we fear they are under the debris."

An AFP reporter at the scene saw rescue workers ferrying out the body of a badly-disfigured hotel worker as his colleagues looked on in tears.

The United Nations said the dead included two of their employees -- Serbian national Aleksandar Vorkapic, who worked for the refugee agency UNHCR, and Perseveranda So of the Philippines who worked for children's agency UNICEF.

Dozens of aid workers were staying at the opulent hotel before heading out to refugee camps in North West Frontier Province, where Pakistan launched military action in three districts on April 26 to try to crush Taliban rebels.

The air and ground assault in Swat, Lower Dir and Buner has sent up to tw o million people fleeing their homes.

Tuesday's bombing was the seventh deadly blast in Peshawar in a month. More than 155 people have been killed in similar attacks across Pakistan since the anti-Taliban military offensive began.

Early reports suggest at least two men dressed as security guards shot their way through a security barrier and into the hotel compound, where they managed to detonate about 500 kilogrammes of explosives packed in a pick-up truck.

"It was such a huge and powerful blast that the engine flew up to the fourth floor of the hotel," police official Shafiullah Khan told AFP.

In late May, 24 people were killed in a similar gun and suicide car bomb attack on a police building in eastern Lahore -- an attack claimed by Pakistan's Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), which warned of more "massive attacks."

No group has yet claimed responsibility for Tuesday's hotel blast, and Hussain said a committee had been set up to investigate.

"Police experts are collecting evidence from the spot and debris of the hotel. They have also recorded statements from the hotel employees and those present at the scene," he told AFP.

"We have already alerted all the security and law enforcement agencies and we have declared a high alert in Peshawar and other cities."

The current campaign centred on Swat was launched when Taliban fighters advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad, flouting a deal to put three million people under sharia law in exchange for peace.

The offensive has the backing of the United States and enjoys broad popular support among Pakistanis exasperated by worsening Taliban-linked attacks, which have killed more than 1,960 people since July 2007.

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