ISLAMABAD (AFP) – Pakistani investigators Monday scrambled to track down an Islamabad-based Al-Qaeda cell believed to have carried out the devastating bombing of the Marriott Hotel, security officials said.
The hunt came as British Airways announced that it was suspending all flights to the beleaguered country amid security fears sparked by Saturday’s attack, which killed at least 60 people and injured more than 260.
Investigators said they believed the attackers constructed the massive 600-kilo (1,300 pound) truck bomb at a safe house in the capital, since all lorries entering the heavily-guarded city are searched at checkpoints.
“Our focus at the moment is to track down the network in Islamabad which must have facilitated the movement and construction of the bomb,” a senior official involved in the investigation told AFP.
Dramatic video footage of Saturday night’s attack showed the attacker failed to get through a barrier when he crashed his explosives-laden six-wheeler truck into the five-star hotel’s security gates.
He detonated a small bomb in the cab and guards struggled to put out the resulting blaze, the footage showed, before a gigantic blast turned the hotel into a fireball.
“Carrying 600 kilos of explosives over long distances and through checkpoints is not possible, so our immediate suspicion is that the bomb was loaded in Islamabad,” the official said.
It was likely, however, that the explosives were smuggled into Islamabad in small consignments from militant strongholds in the rugged tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, the official added.
Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik on Sunday pointed the finger at Al-Qaeda militants and their Taliban allies based in the same northwestern frontier regions.
Another senior Pakistani security official said on Monday the explosives used in the bombing were like those used in two other major militant attacks, including one on the Danish embassy in Islamabad in June.
“We are collecting evidence. The explosives were similar to those used in the Danish embassy, which was claimed by Al-Qaeda, and the attack on the ISI camp in Rawalpindi last year,” the official said.
One of Al-Qaeda’s leaders, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, said that the Danish embassy attack, which killed six people, was “in revenge” for Danish newspaper caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.
No group claimed responsibility for the bombing of a bus near a facility of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Rawalpindi in November last year, which killed at least 15 people.
Pakistan’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari, vowed after the Marriott attack to crack down on the “cancer” of militancy and Pakistani forces are currently engaged in a bloody military operation in the tribal belt.
But the extremist problem is also causing tensions between Islamabad and Washington, which has counted it as a key ally in the “war on terror” since 2001.
Pakistani security forces opened fire at two US helicopter gunships which violated Pakistani airspace in a rugged tribal region bordering Afghanistan on Sunday night in the latest of a string of such incident, local officials said.
“The helicopters flew back after our troops fired shots at them,” a security official told AFP. There was no immediate comment from the Pakistani military or the US-led coalition in Kabul.
A September 3 ground attack by US commandos in the neighbouring tribal district of South Waziristan left 15 people dead.
B ritish Airways meanwhile announced that it was halting its six flights a week to the capital because of the turmoil in the world’s only nuclear-armed Islamic nation. The last BA flight was on Sunday.
“We have temporarily suspended our flight operations in Pakistan following Saturday’s suicide attack,” Sohail Rehman, a spokesman for British Airways in Islamabad, told AFP.
Two Americans, the Czech ambassador and a Vietnamese woman were among those killed in the blast, hospital officials and diplomats said. A Danish intelligence agent was still missing.