Huge blast in Islamabad; 20 killed, toll may rise (Second Lead)

September 20th, 2008 - 10:40 pm ICT by IANS  

Islamabad, Sep 20 (IANS) A powerful explosion rocked a luxury hotel in the heavily-guarded heart of the Pakistani capital Saturday evening, killing at least 20 people, even as a veritable Who’s Who of 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 two floors 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 10-foot deep crater at its entrance. The number of injured has been placed at 50.

President Asif Ali 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 honor 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.

Special security arrangements had been made in view of the president’s address to parliament, during the course of which he had called for collective efforts to deal with terrorism and extremism in the country.

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