Pakistani leadership dodges bullet

Almost the entire Pakistani leadership was expected to dine at the Islamabad Marriott the night it was destroyed.

A view of destruction caused by suicide bomb explosion at Marriott hotel last week in Islamabad, Pakistan on Tuesday, Sept 23, 2008. A top Pakistani official said the country's leaders were due to dine at the luxury hotel devastated in a weekend bombing, but changed the venue at the last minute. (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash) *** Local Caption ***  ISL101_Pakistan_Violence.jpg
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ISLAMABAD // Almost the entire Pakistani leadership was expected to dine at the Islamabad Marriott on Saturday night, but plans were cancelled at the last minute, Pakistan's top security official revealed today. At eight o'clock that night a suicide bomber rammed a truck loaded with 600 kilograms of explosives into the hotel's front gate, setting all five storeys ablaze in what has been called "Pakistan's 9/11". Also yesterday, a little-known group calling itself the Fedayeen of Islam claimed that it was behind the savage weekend truck-bomb attack. Pakistan's most wanted Taliban commander meanwhile denied any involvement in the carnage that killed at least 53 people, wounded almost 300 and destroyed the landmark building as hundreds of guests inside were breaking their Ramadan fast on Saturday. The Fedayeen of Islam claim was made in a telephone recording played to the Al Arabiya television channel's correspondent in Islamabad late today. The Al Arabiya reporter dialled an unknown telephone number he received in an anonymous sms text message and heard a recorded message in English, in which the group said it was behind the attack. The truck is seen in video footage from the hotel's closed-circuit security camera ramming into steel barricades at the main entrance just before 8pm. A blast in the cabin appears to be the bomber blowing himself up. The cabin burns for three to four minutes as nervous security guards move close to examine the truck and try to extinguish the flames, unaware that the cabin blaze was about to set off more than half a tonne of TNT and RDX explosives, mixed with mortars, shells, ammunition and aluminium powder. The mammoth explosion left a volcanic-like crater almost eight metres deep, vaporising the security post and shredding the hotel's lower floors, followed by a raging fireball that engulfed the hotel, trapping guests on upper floors, including the Czech ambassador. The envoy's body was among those found on Sunday morning. He was one of at least four foreigners killed. The five-star hotel's six restaurants and two banquet halls were packed with guests and families breaking their fast. Rehman Malik, Pakistan's adviser on interior affairs, the de facto interior minister, told reporters yesterday that the speaker of parliament had arranged a dinner for Asif Ali Zardari, the president, Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, armed services chiefs and several ministers at the Marriott, but switched venues at the last minute. "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," Mr Malik said. "Perhaps the terrorists knew that the Marriott was the venue of the dinner for all the leadership where the president, prime minister, speaker and the entire leadership would be present." Mr Malik's revelation drew fresh accusations of a gross security failure, and some scepticism. "If it is true the entire leadership was to dine at the Marriott, then why were they not making sure that something like this could not happen to the hotel? I am completely baffled," said Talat Masood, a security and political analyst and a retired lieutenant general. "How is it that they did not take sufficient precautions? If the top leadership were going to have a dinner there, this attack would never have taken place, because venues which are to be visited by the president or the prime minister are usually cordoned off at least four hours, often 24 hours beforehand, security teams make inspections and the sniffer dogs are brought through. There is no way a dumper truck would have got anywhere near." The substituted venue for the high-level dinner was in the vicinity of the now-gutted hotel. "Security teams would have cordoned off not just the Marriott but the network of roads around it. The bomber would've blown up something else instead. It's already surprising enough that the truck passed as close as it did to the prime minister's residence," Mr Masood said. Pakistan would have been "in a state of terrible chaos" had such a concentration of leaders been killed: "The entire hierarchy would be missing. We would've had a very serious crisis of trying to hold the country together," he said. A spokesman for the hotel owner denied the leadership was scheduled to have dinner at the Marriott on Saturday. "I have checked from the management and the hotel administration, no booking had been made for an official dinner on that day," said Jamil Khawar, the spokesman. Mr Malik on Sunday had pointed at the al Qa'eda-allied Tehrik-e-Taliban militant group, led by Baitullah Mehsud of the Pakistani Taliban and based in the remote western tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. But Amir Mohammad, an aide to Mehsud, denied the group's involvement. "We have our own targets and we execute our plans precisely with minimal loss of irrelevant or innocent people," Mohammad said, according to The Associated Press. "We have nothing to do with the Marriott hotel attack." Mehsud and his group have also denied accusations they assassinated Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, in December. Bhutto's widower is the current president. Investigators say they are now hunting an Islamabad-based al Qa'eda cell. "Our focus is to track down the network in Islamabad which must have facilitated the construction of the bomb," a senior official involved in the investigation said. The attackers likely constructed the massive 600kg bomb at a safe house in the city, as all lorries entering the heavily guarded capital are searched at checkpoints, the official said. In a further sign of disintegrating security in Pakistan, gunmen yesterday kidnapped Afghanistan's consul in the north-western city of Peshawar, Abdul Khaliq Farahi, and shot his driver in the head. British Airways has suspended its six flights a week to Islamabad following the Marriott attack. The last BA flight out of the capital was on Sunday.