Pakistan: Massive hotel bomb further erodes security

A suicide attack on Peshawar's Pearl Continental, popular among foreigners, killed at least five people and wounded 70.

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    Pakistani rescue members search for victims among the rubble of a partially collapsed hotel after an explosion in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Tuesday.
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A suicide bombing Tuesday at Peshawar's only five-star hotel is the latest of several recent attacks in this northwestern Pakistani city.

It comes after the Taliban threatened to launch periodic attacks in retaliation for an ongoing Army offensive against militants in the Swat Valley. As the town closest to the battle zone and to Pakistan's tribal areas, a militant stronghold, Peshawar makes for a prime target.

Although the Taliban are unlikely to take over the city, say analysts, the attacks have stirred up fear among residents and disrupted routine life. Schools have closed by order of the government, and business has slowed. Normally bustling markets have emptied. Some families have left town.

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The bombing at the Pearl Continental – a hotel popular among Westerners – used more than 1,000 pounds of explosives according to Malak Naveed, inspector general of police for the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), where Peshawar is located. At least five people were killed and 70 injured, among them foreigners, Reuters reported.

According to eyewitnesses, the attackers, who were in a car, opened fire at the security guards manning the hotel's main entrance. They opened the way for the explosive-packed pickup truck coming behind them.

The United States government had planned to purchase the luxury hotel as part of its plan to open a consulate in the city. (See story here.)

It is located just a few yards from the building of the provincial assembly and the Peshawar High Court. The hotel had already received threats from militants, and security had been tightened. In recent weeks, nearby shopping centers had received similar warnings of possible suicide attacks.

Militants had also warned people to stop wearing clothing they consider un-Islamic. Two weeks ago, a representative of a medical company was beaten for wearing a certain kind of shirt in the city. Following the incident, doctors at various hospitals stopped wearing them. Some banks advised employees to wear shalwar qameez, the traditional dress.

Militants have also warned nurses at hospitals and medical centers to wear veils. Following the threats, many girls have started wearing veils and burqas to school.

Adding to the sense of insecurity among residents here is that the Taliban have a presence on three sides of the city: In the town of Darra Adam Khel to the south and the Bara area of Khyber tribal agency to the southwest; in the Jamrud area of Khyber to the west; and in Mohmand tribal agency to the north.

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Mahmood Shah, a former governor of Pakistan's tribal areas, dismisses the idea that Peshawar will fall to the Taliban any time. But such attacks are likely to continue as long as the government continues to pursue militants in Swat and elsewhere, he continues.

The terrorists want to force the government to stop the military operation in Swat or prevent actions against them elsewhere, but will fail to do so, says Bashir Ahmad Bilour, a senior government official in NWFP who has escaped three attacks on his life.

Pakistanis have shown rare support for the Army's offensive in Swat, signaling a potential shift in public opinion against the Taliban. It is unclear whether retaliatory attacks like Tuesday's will affirm or weaken that resolve.

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