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Aid workers among dead in Pakistan hotel blast

/ Source: The Associated Press

Investigators searched a wrecked luxury hotel in northwestern Pakistan for evidence Wednesday after a bold suicide bombing killed 11 people, including aid workers, in what the U.N. condemned as a "heinous terrorist attack."

Elsewhere in the volatile region, security forces killed 70 suspected militants in an area close to two major Taliban tribal strongholds, intelligence officials told The Associated Press.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the late Tuesday's bombing of the Peshawar Pearl Continental, but the blast followed Taliban threats to carry out major attacks in large cities to avenge an army offensive against insurgents in the nearby Swat Valley.

At least three suicide attackers shot their way past guards and set off the explosion outside the hotel, a favorite spot for foreigners and well-off Pakistanis and a site that the United States was considering for its consulate.

Twisted steel
The attack reduced a section of the hotel to concrete rubble and twisted steel and left a huge crater in a parking lot. Senior police official Safwat Ghayur said counterterrorism experts, police and intelligence agents were combing the rubble for clues Wednesday.

The Pearl Continental, affectionately called the "PC" by Pakistanis, is the ritziest hotel in the rugged frontier city of 2.2 million.

Security camera footage show the attackers in two vehicles: a white sedan and a small truck. The vehicles pull up to a guard post outside the hotel, with the car in front. A puff of smoke appears near the car window. A guard collapses, apparently shot. The vehicles move into the hotel compound. A flash and eruption of dust follow seconds later.

The truck was carrying more than half a ton of explosives, senior police officer Shafqatullah Malik estimated.

The chaotic scene echoed a bombing last year at Islamabad's Marriott Hotel that killed more than 50 people. Both hotels were favored places for foreigners and elite Pakistanis to stay and socialize, making them high-profile targets for militants despite tight security.

Both hotels are owned by Sadruddin Hashwani, who vowed to rebuild quickly and claimed the government was partly to blame for the attack by not providing better security.

"This is (the) government's failure," Hashwani told Geo TV, claiming that government ministers get much better security escorts than the high-profile Pearl. "Government needs to think seriously who they have to give security — to foreigners or the ministers. Half of the hotel's occupants were foreigners."

North West Frontier Province senior minister Bashir Ahmad Bilour denied the government was at fault and said closed-circuit TV footage showed the hotel had removed some security barriers.

"I do not buy that there was any security lapse. There was enough security arrangements made by the government," Bilour said. "I would say that this was a failure on part of the hotel management's security. We are at war. Terrorists are out to cause big losses."

In Washington, two senior U.S. officials said the State Department had been in negotiations with the hotel's owners to either purchase or sign a long-term lease for the facility to house a new American consulate. 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 to The Associated Press 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.

The exact death toll remained elusive Wednesday.

North West Frontier Province Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain told AP that officials reported 11 fatalities. Other police and government officials could confirm only five dead.

The three attackers also died, said an intelligence official who spoke to The AP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. U.N. spokeswoman Amena Kamaal said three bodies pulled from the rubble Wednesday were two Pakistani government staffers whose work was funded by the U.N.'s population agency, along with their driver.

The United Nations also identified staff members among the dead — Aleksandar Vorkapic, 44, from Belgrade, Serbia, and UNICEF staffer Perseveranda So, 52, from the Philippines.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday condemned the hotel bombing as a "heinous terrorist attack."

U.N. officials declined to comment Wednesday on whether they might scale back their programs in Pakistan. Such a move could have significant consequences because of a refugee crisis sparked by the military offensive in Swat, where more than 2 million people have been displaced.

"Humanitarian workers around the world are coming under increasing attack, and it is the poor, the uprooted and the vulnerable who will suffer the most by their loss," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said. "Now, once again, we are forced to ask ourselves, `How we can meet their urgent needs while ensuring the safety of our own humanitarian staff?' It is a truly terrible dilemma."

U.N. 'reviewing the security situation'
Hiro Ueki, a U.N. spokesman in Pakistan, said besides the two U.N. staffers killed, four were wounded.

"We have moved most of the U.N. staff to Islamabad in view of what happened yesterday," he said. "Only a skeleton staff is staying in Peshawar at the moment. We are reviewing the security situation."

Peshawar and other Pakistani towns and cities have weathered a wave of bombings in recent months that has only intensified since the Swat offensive, strongly supported by Washington, began over a month ago.

On Tuesday, the Pakistani military took action in Bannu, a region near Swat, after tribal elders there failed to move against militants in their midst who allegedly helped kidnap more than 100 students from a boys' school who were later freed.

Two intelligence officials said troops, backed by helicopter gunships and artillery, attacked the Jani Khel section of Bannu, leaving some 70 militants dead. They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Bannu is near both South and North Waziristan, two major strongholds for al-Qaida and the Taliban. South Waziristan in particular is expected to be the site of an offensive after Swat, though the military has not confirmed any plans.

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