Peshawar: Pakistani police on Wednesday pulled bodies from the charred rubble of a luxury hotel in northwest Peshawar after a suicide car bomb killed 18 people in the city troubled by Taliban violence.
A top provincial official said that 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, large parts of which were reduced to rubble when at least two attackers shot security guards and then slammed an explosives-laden truck into the building.
“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 (NWFP) information minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said.
He said that the death toll had risen to 18, as police and rescue workers continued to pull people from the wreckage of Peshawar’s ritziest hotel.
“I fear that eight to ten people or maybe even more are still trapped under the debris,” said Shafiullah Khan, a police officer at the scene.
Police official Abdul Ghafoor Afridi said that 57 people were injured, including some foreigners who have been taken from Peshawar, the provincial capital, to Islamabad for treatment.
Rescue workers were seen ferrying out the body of a badly-disfigured hotel worker as his colleagues looked on in tears.
The UN said that 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.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the bombing a heinous terrorist attack which no cause can justify.
Dozens of aid workers were staying at the opulent hotel before heading out to refugee camps in NWFP, where Pakistan launched military action in three districts on 26 April to try to crush Taliban rebels.
The air and ground assault in Swat, Lower Dir and Buner has sent up to two million people fleeing their homes.
More than 155 people have been killed in similar attacks across Pakistan since the anti-Taliban military offensive began, and Tuesday’s bombing was the seventh deadly blast in Peshawar in a month.
Early reports suggested that at least two men 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 small 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 said.
CCTV footage broadcast on Pakistani television channels showed a car driving quickly through a security post on a road into the hotel, swiftly followed by a small truck, indicating that two vehicles may have been involved.
In late May, 24 people were killed in a similar gun and suicide car bomb attack on a police building in eastern Lahore city — 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 provincial minister Hussain said police were sifting through the debris.
“We have declared a high alert in Peshawar and other cities,” he said.
The current military campaign centred on Swat was launched when Taliban fighters advanced to within 100 kilometres of Islamabad, flouting a deal to put three million people under sharia law in exchange for peace.
The offensive has the backing of the US and enjoys broad popular support among Pakistanis exasperated by worsening Taliban-linked attacks, which have killed more than 1,960 people since July 2007.
Military officials said Wednesday they had also launched operations in northwest Bannu district bordering the lawless tribal Waziristan region, where the US alleges Al-Qaeda militants are holed up, plotting attacks on the West.