The wave of militant violence tearing through Pakistan's cities continued last night as men armed with guns and a huge bomb attacked a five-star hotel in Peshawar. At least 11 people were killed and dozens more were injured.
Among the dead was said to be a foreign aid worker, one of many staying at the hotel. The Foreign Office also confirmed that a British man was among those injured in the blast and was being treated in hospital.
In an incident that called to mind last year's attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, police said gunmen stormed into the Pearl Continental hotel, one of the few places in the city to cater to Westerners, and opened fire before a "big bomb went off". Reports said several foreign workers from the UN were among the injured while one was killed. Part of the hotel was entirely destroyed while the bomb also left a large crater.
Television images showed chaos outside the hotel, located opposite the provincial legislature of the North-West Frontier Province and close to the Governor and Chief Minister's offices. Armed police stood by as the injured were carried away from the rubble, and moved to a local hospital.
Police official Liaqat Ali said he was told by witnesses three men riding in a truck approached the main gate of the hotel and opened fire at security guards before driving inside. Police suggested up to 500kg of explosives must have been used. "They drove the vehicle inside the hotel gates and blew it up on reaching close to the hotel building," Mr Ali told the Associated Press. The provincial information minister said a UN official had been killed. One of the injured, Jawad Chaudhry, 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."
The bombing is just the latest in a flurry of attacks that have rocked Pakistan in recent weeks. Two weeks ago, militants killed at least 30 people and injured hundreds when they targeted police and intelligence offices in the city of Lahore, utilising tactics similar to those shown last night in Peshawar.
A spokesman for Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud said the Lahore attack had been carried out in revenge for the military operation to drive militants from the Swat valley. The Taliban spokesman urged residents of Pakistan's main towns and cities to flee, because more attacks on the country's urban centres were planned.
Despite the attacks and the warning from the militants of its plan to carry out more revenge attacks, the government of Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistani military appears in no hurry to halt the operation. Under considerable pressure from the US, the Pakistani military launched the operation in April when a ceasefire agreement with the Taliban broke down.
But the operation has caused about 2.4 million people to flee the conflict areas. Those foreign aid workers caught up in the blast may have been part of the subsequent humanitarian effort. Amjad Jamal, spokesman for the World Food Programme in Pakistan, said more than 25 UN workers were staying at the hotel at the time of the attack.