Suicide attackers detonated a truck bomb tonight outside a luxury hotel in Peshawar that U.S. officials were in negotiations to make into an American consulate, officials said. The attack killed at least five people and wounded dozens more.
The motive for the assault was not clear, and two U.S. officials in Washington said they were not aware of any signs that the U.S. interest in the compound had played a role in its being targeted.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in the largest city in Pakistan's restive northwest, but it fit the pattern of recent attacks the Taliban said it launched in retaliation for a military campaign against militants in the Swat Valley region.
Television footage showed part of the Pearl Continental Hotel had been demolished in the blast, reduced to concrete rubble and twisted steel. The scene was pandemonium, with armed police rushing around and Pakistani men standing by looking stunned. One man held a bloodied rag to his head.
A large crater was blasted into the ground.
An AP reporter saw six foreigners being helped out of the hotel with injuries, including at least two with bandages around their heads.
Peshawar district coordination officer Sahibzada Anis said one foreigner was among the dead, and identified him as a Serbian national working for the UNHCR. He said a Briton, a Somalian and a German were among those injured.
UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond in Geneva said a staff member from the group was among the casualties, but declined to give any further details because the person's family was yet to be informed.
Amjad Jamal, spokesman for the World Food Program in Pakistan, said more than 25 U.N. workers were staying at the hotel when the attack occurred. He said all seven WFP workers were safe, but he could not speak for other U.N. agencies.
Witnesses described three men riding in a truck approaching the main gate of the hotel and opening fire at security guards as they entered the gates, police official Liaqat Ali said.
Saleem Khan, a hotel security guard who was wounded in the attack, said at a nearby hospital: "They started firing on our security guards; we started firing on them after that. They reached near the building and then blew up the vehicle."
The method matched that of a May 27 attack on buildings belonging to police and a regional headquarters of Pakistan's top intelligence agency in the eastern city of Lahore, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility. In that attack, a small group opened fire on security guards to get through a guard post and then detonated an explosive-laden van.
Sahibzada Anis, a top government official in Peshawar, a teeming city of 2.2 million, said at least five people were killed in Tuesday's attack and 70 wounded people were taken to hospitals.
An injured man, Jawad Chaudhry, said he was in his room on the ground floor when he heard gunshots and then a big bang.
"The floor under my feet shook. I thought the roof was falling on me. I ran out. I saw everybody running in panic," he said. "There was blood and pieces of glass everywhere."
He said he saw several people lying on the floor with wounds, and some of them seemed to be unconscious.
Jamal Khan, a chef at the hotel, blundered out, covered in dust and his apron spattered with blood.
"I was busy as usual cooking when I heard a deafening bang," he said. "I tumbled and hit a wall. I do not know how I managed to come out. I just heard people crying in pain and crying for help."
The Pearl Continental, affectionately called the "PC" by Pakistanis, is relatively well-guarded and set far back from the main road and overlooking a golf course and a historic fort. It is located just over a mile (two kilometers) from the city's airport.
Parking in front of the structure is heavily restricted, and to get to the front doors of the building, a car has to undergo security checks and travel around concrete and metal barriers.
The hotel is a favorite place for foreigners and elite Pakistanis to stay and socialize, making it a high-profile target for militants.
A senior police officer, Shafqatullah Malik, said initial calculations suggested the blast was caused by more than half a ton (500 kilograms) of explosive such RDX, a powerful industrial and military explosive.
Last year, a massive bombing at Islamabad's Marriott Hotel killed more than 50 people and wounded dozens, rattling the nation.
Farahnaz Ispahani, spokeswoman for President Asif Ali Zardari and the ruling party, condemned the attack.
"We will not bow down. We will not be cowed by these people," she said. "We will root them out. We will fight them and we will win. This is Pakistan's unity and integrity that is at stake."
Lou Fintor, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, said all diplomatic personnel were accounted for. "At this point we have no reports that any Americans were at the scene," he said.
In Washington, two senior U.S. officials said the State Department had been in negotiations with the hotel's owners to either purchase the facility or sign a long-term lease there to house a new American consulate in Peshawar. The officials said they were not aware of any sign that U.S. interest in the compound had played a role in its being targeted.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations were not public and had not been completed. They said no immediate decision had been made on whether to go ahead with plans to base the consulate on the hotel grounds.
Northwest provincial information minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said the attack was likely in retaliation for the offensive against the Taliban in Swat, which the military says it is winning.
The offensive and surrounding districts began in late April, and so far has been broadly supported by the public.