Pakistan leaders narrowly escaped suicide bombing


Pakistan's leaders narrowly escaped a sucide bombing that killed 53 people in Islamabad's Marriott Hotel last weekend when their scheduled meeting was cancelled, it has emerged.

Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said President Asif Ali Zardari, as well as the prime minister and army commander, had been due to attend a dinner at the hotel on Saturday night but the venue was changed on the prime minister's advice.

The Czech ambassador and at least three other foreigners were among those killed in the Saturday evening truck-bomb attack, which wounded 266 people and which security officials said bore the hallmarks of al-Qaeda.

There has been no claim of responsibility but the government said it expected the investigation would lead to al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the Afghan border.

Meanwhile, the Afghan consul general in Peshawar was kidnapped today after gunmen ambushed his car and killed his driver. Gunmen opened fire on a US diplomat in the city last month.

"Masked gunmen intercepted his vehicle and took him away after killing his driver," said consulate official Noor Mohammad Takal. "It's a very serious incident. The Pakistani government needs to give security to diplomats."

Shortly before the attack in Peshawar, a British Airways spokesman said the airline had suspended its six flights a week to Pakistan while the company reviewed security.

The hotel bombing has raised fresh calls for Pakistan's government to rethink its alliance with the United States and military operations against Islamist militants, which many Pakistanis blame for inciting violence.

Mr Zardari is due to meet President George W. Bush tomorrow in Washington.

Pakistan's army is in the midst of an offensive against militants in the Bajaur region on the Afghan border, while the United States has intensified attacks on militants on the Pakistani side of the border, infuriating the Pakistani army.

A security official said troops had fired at two US helicopters that intruded into Pakistani air space last night, forcing them back to Afghanistan.

Troops were attacking militant hideouts in the Bajaur region where the government says more than 600 militants have been killed in fighting since August.

But a senior opposition politician, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, said the government should reject US pressure to fight militants, halt offensives and "sit down at the same table" and negotiate peace.

"The government must immediately end any military intervention in the tribal areas," Mr Sharif said in an interview with Italy's La Repubblicanewspaper.

"I condemn the Marriott attack, but condemnation is not sufficient to straighten things out. We must avoid the pressures of the United States and think for ourselves," he said.

No arrests have been made in connection with Saturday's blast. Among the foreigners killed were a Vietnamese woman and two members of the US armed forces assigned to the US embassy.