Pakistan's leaders 'had been due to dine in bomb hotel'

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PAKISTAN'S leaders had been due to dine at the luxury hotel devastated by a truck bomb but changed the venue at the last minute, a government official said yesterday.

Asif Ali Zardari, the president, and Yousuf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, were among those who switched their Saturday night meal from the Marriott Hotel to the premier's residence, according to Rehman Malik, of the interior ministry.

He said the reason for their decision was kept secret.

"Perhaps, the terrorists knew that the Marriott was the venue of the dinner for all the leadership where the president, prime minister, speaker and all entire leadership would be present," Mr Malik said.

"At the 11th hour, the president and prime minister decided that the venue would be the prime minister's house. It saved the entire leadership."

However, a spokesman for the hotel owner said it had had no plans to host a dinner for government leaders. "We didn't have any reservation for such a dinner that the government official is talking about," Jamil Khawar said.

Saturday's blast at the Marriott in Islamabad killed at least 53 people and underscored the extremist challenge facing Pakistan, where Taleban and al-Qaeda militants are operating out of tribal regions close to Afghanistan.

The attack prompted foreign diplomatic missions and aid groups to review their security status, and British Airways said yesterday it was temporarily suspending its six flights a week to the country as a precautionary measure – it stressed it had faced no direct security threat.

After the blast, suspicion fell on al-Qaeda or the Pakistani Taleban. But Amir Mohammad, an aide to Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistani Taleban leader, said he had not been involved and shared the nation's grief.

And last night, Arabiya television reported that a little-known Islamist group had claimed responsibility.

The group, which called itself Fedayeen Islam (Partisans of Islam), contacted Arabiya's correspondent in Islamabad and issued several demands, including for Pakistan to stop its co-operation with the United States, the TV station said.

Some 270 people were injured in the hotel attack, while the dead included the Czech ambassador to Pakistan and two employees of the US department of defence.

Most of the victims were Pakistanis, a fact that is likely to increase the pressure on the government to stem the rising violence in the Muslim nation that many blame on the country's partnership with the US in the "war on terror".

In a further sign of the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan, gunmen kidnapped Afghanistan's ambassador-designate and killed his driver in the main north-western city of Peshawar yesterday.

A spokesman for the Afghan mission in the city said Abdul Khaliq Farahi had been abducted as he travelled towards his home in the city. He gave no more details, but the kidnapping and killing were confirmed by the Afghan charge d'affaires in Islamabad, Majnoon Gulab.

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